The DOE's Solar Decathlon Prepares Graduates for Green Jobs

Embracing our "Sputnik moment" is what twenty college teams from around the world are doing as they compete in this year's Solar Decathlon. They are bringing some of the most innovative designs and technology to make super-efficient solar homes of the future.
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As others have noted, Obama said very little about green jobs in his jobs speech last Thursday. But when he proposed to pay for his new plan, he targeted the subsidies we give to the oil and gas industry and allocated $40 billion in cuts from these very, very profitable companies to partially pay for his jobs plan. The White House seems to be signalling that we're still moving in the direction of the President's 2009 State of the Union address, when he proposed that "This is our generation's Sputnik moment," he continued, "clean energy is... an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people."

Embracing our "Sputnik moment" is what twenty college teams from around the world are doing as they compete in this year's Solar Decathlon. They are bringing to Washington D.C. some of the most innovative designs and technology to make super-efficient solar homes of the future. But they're not just sci-fi dilettantes... this stuff has real impact.

The Solar Decathlon makes stars of engineers, architects and designers, who investigate the latest technologies to trim the fat of a typical home's energy use -- the University of Maryland's home uses just 29% of the energy a typical home from that state. As they work through the process, they develop a lot of real-world skills, from figuring out how to fund their project to working with contractors and figuring out how a house works. This paves the way for many of them to enter into the green jobs market. Members of the team from Cornell's 2005 team formed an architecture and energy consulting called Zero Energy, which brings their Solar Decathlon experience to the marketplace.

Some are even pursuing patents for designs developed for their houses. Inspired by a lecture on campus, the 2007 Maryland Team developed a Liquid Desiccant cooling system that uses a saline solution to cool the house by lowering humidity. The design takes advantage of their material by creating an indoor waterfall that has been a central design feature for both Maryland's 2007 Solar Decathlon and the present team. Their design was so popular that after the 2007 decathlon, the team decided it was time to make a business plan and apply for a patent. As they await their patent, the 2011 Maryland team is experimenting with the liquid desiccant in their solar home. Their design uses two liquid desiccant waterfalls inside the house to dehumidify household air and uses heat captured by the solar thermal system to process and reuse the desiccant in the waterfalls. (read the whole story on their blog)

They've also incorporated water into their design in innovative ways, which we featured in our recent webisode:

In addition to the liquid desiccant system, the team has also used a Energy Recovery Ventilator (ERV), a commercially available product from Ultimate Air, which provides ventilation and air filtration while moderating the heat and moisture exchange from the outside air. The HVAC system will contribute to Maryland's energy savings considerably. The house is so efficient that its solar panels provide all the energy it needs on a yearly basis.

So, despite the president's reticence to trot out his green jobs agenda last week, many people are forging ahead. According to a
by Bracken Hendricks at the Center for American Progress, we'd be remiss not to see opportunities in the field. Some highlights from their report:
  • If we retrofitted 40% of the nation's residential and commercial building stock, we would create 625,000 jobs in 10 years and generate64 billion per year in cost savings for U.S. energy ratepayers (about300 to1,200/family)
  • Modern retrofitting techniques and technologies can reduce energy use by up to 40% per home, on average that translates to a savings of760/year.
  • The proposed efficiency incentive program, Home Star establishes a two year6 billion dollar rebate program providing direct consumer incentives for homeowners to purchase energy saving upgrades in single-family homes and would create 186,000 jobs.

Even more importantly, efficiency retrofit jobs can't be shipped overseas. Workers here in the U.S. can perform this work, as long as training programs -- like the Solar Decathlon -- continue to inspire the next generation of workers to enter the clean energy economy. Planet Forward is highlighting their work for the whole month of September and I hope you will join us. Go over to Planet Forward's Solar Decathlon page and check out some of the teams who have put together innovative, beautiful homes -- would you live in one of those homes? Vote for your favorite and help them get on TV! We will feature the winner of our voting contest on PBS's Nightly Business Report.

The average house in Maryland uses 100.5 million BTU per year according to the EIA (household data from US Census) and, according to the specs provided to Planet Forward by the Maryland team, their house uses just 30 million BTU/year.

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