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University students show off solar-powered homes

WASHINGTON—Gray skies darkened spirits Tuesday in a little village of solar homes on the National Mall, erected by 18 college teams that are participating in the Department of Energy's "Solar Decathlon" challenge.

Teams from 15 states, Puerto Rico, Canada and Spain are offering their versions of 100 percent self-sufficient solar-powered units that must heat and cool themselves, run everyday appliances—and, as it turns out, save lots of power for rainy days. The 450- to 800-square-foot units also are being judged for comfort and architecture.

Among the schools that are participating are Florida International University in Miami, Washington State University in Pullman, the University of Texas-Austin, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.

"They're demonstrating that solar energy really works and that energy efficiency pays off," said Richard King, a solar specialist with the Energy Department.

Storage batteries and energy conservation seemed to be the real tests Tuesday after a rainy weekend and two mostly cloudy days.

"Everyone was in high spirits about things, but this (weather) has changed the whole competition," said Austin Quig-Hartman, 22, of Cal Poly, whose team is in second place. Its entry has placed second in architecture and livability, the first two of 10 categories to be judged by Friday.

The Cornell University team from Ithaca, N.Y., was still running lots of appliances Tuesday, thanks to nearly full batteries. Not so the leading team, from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, which was down to running only its refrigerator. The problem: storage batteries that were two-thirds expired.

"This has made the competition fierce," said Joe Wheeler, Virginia Tech's team leader.

What made Tuesday's energy story so bleak was, in part, some showing off Monday after the sun made several appearances. Then, people had watched TV beneath the village's slanted or curved solar roof panels. They'd fiddled on computers and peeked into refrigerators. Some students had driven electric cars, charged from their solar homes' outlets.

That the village was still running at all Tuesday was tribute to the dwellings' tightly sealed walls and roofs and heavy insulation. Many entries cut artificial-lighting costs by relying on sunlight, either via windows—as in Florida International University's case—or semi-transparent polycarbonate walls, which let in filtered sunlight—as in Virginia Tech's.

Virginia Tech's entry also recycles rain, dish and bath water, and, like several others, is completely mobile.

"Everything about this house was extraordinary," Katherine Salant, a syndicated housing columnist who's a contest judge, said of Virginia Tech's entry. "Every so often, you see something and just say `I could live there.'''

To Linda Lee of Arlington, Va., a solar fan who was touring the exhibition with two 5-year-olds, they seemed a bit cramped.

"They're great houses, but too small." she said, peeking into a bedroom. "And some kitchens were obviously designed by bachelors who have never cooked."

The Energy Department's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy runs the decathlon.


For more information online, go to


Here are some real-world solar options:

_Water heater. Can cut water-heating bills by 50 to 80 percent. Almost always requires a backup for cloudy days or times of peak demand.

_Electricity. A small solar electric or photovoltaic system, which converts sunlight directly into electricity, will cost $15,000 or more for a 1,500-square-foot home. There are two types. One is a standalone system that requires storage batteries and an alternative power source such as a propane generator. The other is a more expensive system ($18,000-plus) that connects to the conventional power grid, doesn't require storage batteries and enables the homeowner to sell surplus solar energy back to the power grid.

_Outdoor lighting. Solar cells store sunlight for lights at night.

_Pool heaters: These can save a lot. They're competitive in price with gas and heat-pump heaters.


Useful Web sites:

U.S. Department of Energy,

RWE Schott Solar,

Find Solar,


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): SOLAR

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