Collegiate teams participating in the 2013 Solar Decathlon, a U.S. Department of Energy competition that showcases student-designed and built solar-powered homes, are innovators. And there could be opportunities for them to commercialize their innovations.
Nineteen teams from all over the world assembled solar homes along an abandoned airstrip at the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, Calif. for display and judging from Oct. 3-13. The homes are judged on 10 criteria, including engineering, architecture, comfort, market appeal and affordability.
The Solar Decathlon started in 2002 and occurs every two years. This is the first year the event did not take place on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
While every team had to be innovative to build a livable net-zero energy home in a 1,000-square-foot envelope, some also dipped their toes into the business world as they invented new equipment, as well as used old equipment in new ways.
Some of the Solar Decathlon teams researched marketability of portions of their solar-powered homes or even of their complete modular designs. Some have even named their products or taken steps toward patenting new technologies they developed for their solar houses.
“This is basically the prototype of the Start.Home,” said Lilly Shi, the communications lead for Stanford University’s team. “So many people don’t like cookie-cutter houses. But there are a lot of efficiencies to be gained with cookie-cutter design.”
Shi said her Stanford team has developed a solution that provides the efficiencies of mass-produced home construction with the flexibility of custom-home design. The team’s CORE includes all of the solar-powered home’s mechanical elements from hot water heating and the electric “engine” of the home to greywater recycling for irrigation.
“This unit plugs into our house and you can build or add modules around it as you need,” Shi added.
Many of the Solar Decathlon teams centralized their mechanics. But the Stanford teams aims to commercialize its Start.Home CORE.
Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey is another team with big commercial goals. The misting system on the exterior HVAC unit is already patent-pending, a student guide stated. It collects condensate from inside the house and sprays a fine cooling mist at the HVAC’s intake valve.
In addition, the Stevens team developed an artistic humidifying and dehumidifying system, on-demand hot water system and its own solar shingles.
Stevens and several of the teams at the Solar Decathlon also engineered an energy monitoring and automation system that can be controlled with a tablet or smart phone.
At least two teams are investigating the market for their complete modular designs. Students from the University of Louisville, Ball State University and University of Kentucky - who built their Phoenix House as a permanent home for disaster victims - have been in contact with the Federal Emergency Management Agency about its possibilities.
The Norwich University team built its Delta T-90 home to be livable and comfortable, even in Vermont’s negative-degree winters. But it also built the home to be affordable and marketable on a larger scale.
While all of the teams have innovated and some have visions of commercializing their inventions, the Solar Decathlon is the first major step for most of the new technologies.