August 10, 2007 4:00 AM PDT

Energy geeks compete for coolest solar home

Energy geeks compete for coolest solar home
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CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Right behind the solar car on every environmentalist's wish list is a home powered entirely by the sun.

This summer, teams from 20 universities are busy building enough homes to make an entire "solar village." The off-grid, self-powering homes will be on display for 10 days in October on the National Mall in Washington D.C., competing in the Department of Energy's 2007 Solar Decathlon.

A group from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has already begun construction of its off-grid solar-powered home, called MIT Solar 7 and drawing in students and advisers with expertise in everything from electrical storage to mechanical engineering. It's part of an MIT-wide commitment to energy-related research to address climate change.

The team's 800-square-foot home, going up in a crumbling parking lot near the MIT campus, combines energy-efficient design with the latest in solar technology: a passive solar-heating system and a photovoltaic array big enough to not only operate the house but also power an electric car.

The project's student leader, Corey Fucetola, is an electrical engineering graduate student whose thesis is in nano-material fabrication--a topic that has little to do with sustainable architecture. But Fucetola says he is learning a lot of valuable information that can benefit himself, the community and providers of green-building products.

"I'd like to be knowledgeable on the subject (of sustainable building) because I know that energy and pollution are intrinsically linked with population growth. Inevitably, I'll be part of the problem when I build a house," he said.

Photos of MIT Solar 7

The point of the competition is not to create new building technologies. On the contrary, entrants have to use commercially available products to demonstrate that a sun-powered home can be commercially reproduced. For a university like MIT with access to high-efficiency, NASA-grade solar electric panels, that was an unwelcome constraint.

"You can't yank something out of the lab and throw it onto your roof. You have to use commercial, production-grade products," said Kurt Keville, the project's faculty adviser and a researcher at MIT's Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies. "I was heartbroken."

Still, the MIT group, which is made up of about 20 volunteers, was able to tap into its own heritage: it is using energy-efficient windows originally developed at MIT that use krypton gas as an insulator between three panes of glass.

Speeds and feeds
For any passive solar home, thermal mass--material that retains heat from sunlight--is critical. MIT Solar 7 (named because it is the seventh solar home built by MIT since 1939) will use a wall made of 1-foot-thick multi-layered tiles that will hold water and a high-tech insulator called an aerogel. When finished, the wall will hold about 60 gallons of water which, along with the aerogel, will retain heat and cold air while letting in light, said Keville.

That south-facing wall will also hold 60 evacuated tubes, which will heat water that is circulated through a radiant heating system using Warmboards, a subfloor system made up of insulated plastic water tubes. This system is far more efficient than traditional home heating systems and more comfortable to people because the heat rises evenly from the floor, Keville said.

"We're getting maximum use out of the BTUs that we are generating from the hot water. This will be a hot product soon because it's so efficient," he said.

During the homes' installation on the National Mall, participants are judged on how well their house performs by hosting a dinner party and doing loads of laundry with hot water.

CONTINUED: Powering a car with a house…
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Energy History
Also need to consider the energy history of the home and all the parts that went into it. How much energy did it take to create each piece. Solar panel production takes a lot of energy. Just something to think about.
Posted by toomchstout (11 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Getting off the grid is not what is important. No photovoltaic panels!
Energy efficient glass, high R factor insulation, automatic awnings, are all things that should be looked at.
If you see a Solar Panel go up on any of these homes the competitors need to go back to school. Look at the cost in dollars and CO2 to manufacture your items and track the energy capture from your panels. Cost is critical. We will never get Solar Power off the ground and to any significance if students, professors, and businesses don?t understand the Solar Transfer concept and that putting a photovoltaic panel on a fixed angle on a rooftop in any state in the country is not the way to go. Sure, go solar but plant your panel that you would have put on your roof out in a higher solar constant zone on a dual axis platform where it will capture 2-3 times more power for someone near by. Don't worry you will get credit for your good deeds and smart move in the form of a wire transfer of extra money. That is the trick, make it financially worthwhile to do and you may be on to something. BP, GE, Google, Wal-Mart, and others need to understand this. Please email us if you understand and think you can help get the word out.
Posted by Manhattan2 (329 comments )
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Not the point.
The first point of going all solar was for PR. The second and more important was, by limiting your energy budget to what you can get off of commercial solar panels, you force the contestants to be very efficient in energy usage.

The third point is that it makes an interesting engineering problem. Isn't that the point behind school?
Posted by ralfthedog (1589 comments )
Link Flag
Not really cutting edge
I still see wood-based products in the construction. In addition to being an energy misor, this house should also be built for the inhabitants and the planet's long range health. Wood gets mold. Mold spores cause all kinds of lung issues. Wood gets termites. Do you want to live in a building sprayed by toxic materials? Hey, aren't pesticides made from petroleum? Wood also burns easily. How many people die from fires every year? Wood comes from trees. We've just about cut down all of the old growth forests in this country. Not a very ecologically sound practice.

I like the idea of form-poured concrete houses. It takes care of all of the above concerns, except making concrete is a very energy intensive process. That doesn't get us far, does it? Maybe a similar from of construction, but using more natural materials with minimum processing.
Posted by Rick Cavaretti (216 comments )
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RE: Not really cutting edge
Wood comes from trees. We've just about cut down all of the old growth forests in this country.

----

As I understand it, much of our new construction comes from "new growth" trees - trees planted and cultivated to grow quickly. Mold, especially the dreaded "Black Mold" comes from constant moisture on the wood, and more commonly the drywall on top of it.

Concrete is still a "natural resource" and isn't the easiest to get, transport or put together. The gravel (is it really gravel?) is generally transported by train (!) to where it is mixed with other compounds to strengthen it. I believe that the wood we use is replenished faster than the materials that make up concrete.

The carbon footprint of the everyday american has so much more to do with our culture than just using our car to drive to work each day. Sure that doesn't help, but all the services that we use on a daily basis are transported around by carbon consuming vehicles from "far away" places.
Posted by blsith (48 comments )
Link Flag
The Solar Decathlon is on MySpace!
Hey Everybody!!

The Solar Decathlon now has a Myspace page, where you can find lots of info about the event, download some cool desktops, and find links to all of the teams' websites. Lots of cool stuff to see! Check it out at:

<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.myspace.com/solardecathlon07" target="_newWindow">http://www.myspace.com/solardecathlon07</a>

See you at the competition!
Posted by Solar Decathlon (1 comment )
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Energy Geeks
Go Geeks! You will save the world! May God bless you and help you in your quest.
Posted by spothannah (145 comments )
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