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Friday, December 10, 2010

The end of the solar house fad

Residential PV is a core segment for the industry, solar hot water in California dates back 100 years, and passive solar design can be traced back to Roman times. So the use of solar energy for houses is both an ongoing market and nothing new under the sun.

However, the idea of college teams competing to build solar houses is a fad that’s just about run out of steam: the business model is fundamentally broken.

The way it’s supposed to work is that students work together to build an energy efficient house that runs off renewable energy. SJSU has its ZEM House. Students learn not only about principles of EE/RE design but also get a chance to put those principles into practice. A side benefit is that the tangible artifact creates visibility both on and off campus for the students, the school and the overall green movement.

The reality, however, is that making a tangible artifact costs money: the numbers I’ve heard are between $800k and $2 million, depending on the competition, team, local costs etc. For example, the 2009 Team California house (produced jointly by Santa Clara University and California College of the Arts) cost $1.3 million to participate in the Solar Decathlon, sponsored by the Department of Energy.

A million bucks is a lot to spend on a house that isn’t really going to be used, and may in fact be torn down or soon forgotten. A lot of that money will go to contractors and PV suppliers and other, but that’s not the most efficient way to use public money.

Meanwhile, $1 million could do a lot of good in many other ways. It could pay for 50 student-years of scholarships at a public university. It’s a good start for endowing a professorship of PV or RE or EE (which can range from $1-5 million, depending on the school). It could install 100 KW of PV capacity on the school roof, or at city hall, or on local residences. (BTW, designing and installing that capacity would be almost as instructive as building a throwaway house).

One local college, Santa Clara University, participated in 2007 and 2009 in the national Solar Decathlon. My understanding is that they won’t be back. The reality is that schools have only so much fundraising capacity (and donor base) and that is better used for either more direct student benefit or a more permanent infrastructure.

So what will replace it? Virtual design competitions? Electric car races? Prototype-scale systems? As with any other business — clean or otherwise — these pedagogical approaches need to be cost-effective and supported by a viable business model

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