Saturday, October 31, 2009

Bright Lights, Small Homes

It's been a little over two years, now, since I first began re- searching renewable energies and sustainable businesses on a full-time basis for my university thesis; and it's been a little over six months since my book, Global Warming I$ Good for Business, was published. So this fall I took some time for introspection and re-evaluation to appreciate how far I've come in those two years and to see where I might best continue to shed light on the subject of sustainability.

Without a doubt, one of the most significant events for me during the past two years has been the 2007 Solar Decathlon. For those of you who are not familiar with it, the Solar Decathlon is a bi-annual event, sponsored by the Department of Energy, in which universities from all over the world come together in the spirit of friendly competition to build some of the most innovative zero-energy homes on the planet.

This event takes place on the Mall in Washington D.C., less than 20 miles from where, as a teenager, I used to spend a great deal of time hiking in the woods behind my house, not far from the Potomac River. Once, while hiking, I came upon a small, log cabin, long crumbled and decayed. I began to daydream of one day having a home in the woods, similar to the little log cabin in that it would be totally self-sufficient and yet would offer all the comforts of a modern-day abode. I wanted a home that would be small but elegant, able to sustain all the latest appliances with its own energy systems. I wanted a home that would complement the natural environment and yet offer its own contemporary climate of abundance and innovation.

When I first arrived at the Solar Decathlon, I had no idea what to expect. I had heard that some of the most cutting-edge technologies would be on display. But what I found was my simple dream home. Each of these 800 square-foot homes embodied the ideals I had envisioned back in the 1970s, long before I even knew what a zero-energy home was.

The competition was intense. Points were given in ten areas: architecture, engineering, market viability, lighting design, interior comfort, hot water, appliances, home entertainment, net metering, and communications (i.e. each team's ability to communicate the technical aspects of their home to a general audience).

As I described the Solar Decathlon in my book:

There was a carnival-like atmos- phere at the decathlon during that sunny week. Total strangers talked together like old friends, exchanging ideas and information about various technologies. They learned about passive, photovoltaic (PV) and thermal solar systems (and combinations of systems), about battery storage types and capacities, and about basic building structure and design. It was an amazing experience--alternately astonishing, confusing, exhilarating, and exhausting.

Each house was unique in design, function, and use of renewable building materials. Some looked like they came from a futuristic movie set. Others looked downright homey. But all of them were more than just houses--they were a glimpse into what the future might look like. And it was pretty darn good!

From every thing I have heard, this year's Solar Decathlon was every bit as amazing as its predecessors. The coming together of different viewpoints and different technologies was just as enlightening.

For me, seeing these new designs and listening to these students talk about their experiences is a reaffirmation of my own studied interest in and passion for sustainable living and working. It is, again, a glimpse into what the future might look like. And it's pretty darn good!

Please enjoy this year's 1st and 2nd place winners:

TEAM GERMANY -- 1st Place Winner