October 14th, 2011 by

By Katrina Marland

A remarkable event took place in Washington, D.C. earlier this month. Teams came from around the world to compete for the glory and prestige that come with victory. No, we’re not talking about the Olympics. It’s the Solar Decathlon.

The 2011 Solar Decathlon on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Credit: Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

Every other year, the U.S. Department of Energy challenges teams from U.S. and international colleges and universities to design and create solar-powered houses. Simply creating a house that can run on the sun doesn’t cut it — the decathlon looks for a house so well-designed, so cost-effective, so energy efficient, and so gosh-darn cool that even those solar skeptics out there could take a look and decide that maybe there is something to this whole “powered by the sun” idea.

As the name suggests, the decathlon consists of several contests, including architecture, appliances (yes, even your refrigerator and dishwasher can run on solar energy), market appeal and more. There’s even a home entertainment contest — after all, what fun is having a great solar-powered home if you can’t throw the occasional dinner party?

Some highlights from this year’s many impressive entries:

The University of Maryland team designed a house they’ve dubbed WaterShed. In true Maryland fashion, the team got its inspiration from the Chesapeake Bay and included features that help the home filter and recycle water from the appliances, as well as manage rainwater runoff.

Florida International University’s entry is called perFORM[D]ance House, but don’t let its admittedly confusing name deter you. This home actually monitors the weather so that its energy settings can change as needed. Its louvered panels that can be brought down to cover the windows even make it more hurricane-resistant — a big plus in Florida.

The team from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign designed the Re_home to be used by families displaced by natural disaster. Considering the floods, tornadoes, wildfires and hurricanes we’ve seen this year, I’m really impressed by the team’s desire to address not just solar design, but also this humanitarian issue.

Did I mention that all of these are more than just science fair projects? Many of the homes actually get put into use, often by families in need.

Some amazing ideas come out of this contest every time it happens, which is all the more impressive because they don’t come from the world’s foremost energy companies — they come from students. It’s great that a simple collegiate competition can put us that much closer to a brighter (oh yes, I went there) energy future in the U.S.

Take a look all the teams and their unique designs, and see which ones took home the gold! I think I like the University of Maryland’s WaterShed the best, but I may be a bit biased. What’s your favorite?