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Photo of Solar Decathlon Director Richard King being interviewed by a videographer.

Solar Decathlon News Blog

The U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon News Blog provides regular updates about Solar Decathlon news and events. Learn what's happening now, and let us know what you think by leaving a comment.

Blaise Stoltenberg: A Shining Light for the Solar Decathlon

December 22, 2014

By Ernie Tucker

Blaise Stoltenberg, a U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon organizer, developed his vision for a clean energy future as a Solar Decathlon 2002 decathlete. He was a leader of the University of Colorado’s winning 2002 team and, in recent years, served as a coordinator for Solar Decathlon engineering juries. He did it all with a kind and giving spirit that inspired colleagues and friends.

That same spirit was tested for many months as Blaise battled myelodysplasia, or MDS, a bone marrow disease. On Dec. 16, he passed away at his Golden, Colorado, residence.

A Native of Sunny California Embraces Solar Research

A native of California, Blaise graduated in 1985 from Stanford University with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in a combined program with Claremont McKenna College. After gaining some professional experience, Blaise enrolled in a master’s degree program at the University of Colorado (CU) at Boulder, where he was drawn to the fledgling Solar Decathlon concept.

Photo of a group of men standing around a woman who is holding a large trophy.

Blaise Stoltenberg participated on the University of Colorado Solar Decathlon 2002 team, which took first place in the competition. In this photo, Blaise (second from left) celebrates with teammates. (Credit: Warren Gretz /NREL)

“Blaise was there at the start,” said CU professor Michael Brandemuehl, who recognized Blaise’s unique talents as they collaborated on the inaugural Solar Decathlon. Blaise was a leader of the original seven students on CU’s solar house project and headed up the mechanical systems team that earned first place in the Comfort Zone Contest.

Mike Wassmer, a 2002 teammate and former Solar Decathlon competition manager, recalled that the group referred to him as “Papa Blaise” because he was a mentor and “more mature than most of us.” Added Wassmer, “Whenever I got frustrated with the energy modeling (my main responsibility), he always spent time with me to help me get back on track.”

A Solar Decathlon Pioneer

Blaise’s Solar Decathlon pioneering efforts paved the way for other CU students to become decathletes, Brandemuehl said.

Following some years of engineering work in the private sector, Blaise joined the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in 2009 and became a key member of the Solar Decathlon organizer team.

Photo of four men standing in a row and smiling at the camera.

Blaise Stoltenberg (right) coordinated the Engineering Contest Jury for several Solar Decathlons. He is shown here with the 2011 Engineering Contest jurors. (Credit: U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

“Blaise helped in many ways. He was our engineering jury coordinator for several events—helping to select, guide, and support our juries both in advance of and on site at the Solar Decathlon to ensure that the teams were judged fairly and effectively,” said Solar Decathlon Competition Manager Joe Simon. “He also served as our go-to person for analysis whenever abnormal scoring or data-collection situations arose during the real-time competition.”

If, for example, a sensor didn’t collect information or a utility-grid power spike caused a dehumidifier to turn off overnight, Blaise used his acute analytical skills to determine a fair and equitable adjustment to scores and measurement data.

“He was always eager to lend a helping hand to our on-site observer or perform rules inspections. No matter the task, Blaise was happy to help,” Simon noted.

A devoted husband and father of two, Blaise cited his newborn son in the dedication to his 2003 master’s thesis, writing, “I hope that, in some way, this work will help make his future brighter.”

Even as he battled the disease, Blaise remained upbeat about his job and the future of solar energy. Through his work with Solar Decathlons and his efforts in the renewable energy field, Blaise Stoltenberg has indeed helped make the future brighter for generations to come.

Ernie Tucker is a member of the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon communications team.

 

 

Technology Spotlight: Home Sensors and Automation Systems

November 13, 2014

By Irene Ying and Alexis Powers

Saving energy doesn’t require sacrifice. It also doesn’t have to be complicated, thanks to occupancy and vacancy sensors and home automation systems.

Both energy-efficient and affordable, occupancy and vacancy sensors can reduce the electricity used for home lighting by as much as 30%. Occupancy sensors automatically turn lights on in response to motion—for instance, someone entering a room—and off if no motion is detected for some time. In contrast, vacancy sensors must be turned on manually but automatically turn lights off when a space is unoccupied for a specified time. Ideal for homes with pets, vacancy sensors are activated only by human occupants.

Both types of sensors use infrared technology to detect body heat and ultrasonic technology to detect movement. Some commercially available options also use photo sensors to detect daylight and keep lights off when there is sufficient natural light.

Photo of a vacancy sensor light switch on the wall.

Occupancy and vacancy sensors offer an energy-efficient way to manage home lighting use. (Credit: Alexis Powers/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

Residential sensors are available for less than $20 per switch. Installation is relatively simple, and setup involves only basic programming. Because occupancy and vacancy sensors work with many kinds of lightbulbs—incandescent, fluorescent, and LED, to name just a few—they can easily integrate into an existing home lighting system.

For those looking to save energy on a larger scale, home automation systems are a convenient way to manage home energy use. They can be controlled in the house or remotely via mobile devices and be programmed to maintain specific conditions to make energy savings even more convenient. By monitoring and displaying energy use, home automation systems can also teach homeowners about their energy habits and ways to improve efficiency.

Although a home automation system is likely to result in savings over time, it requires an initial investment of $5,000 to $15,000. This includes components such as the control box, monitor screen, individual subsystems, and computer software.

Photo of a modern house that features two separated modules.

For Solar Decathlon 2013, the Southern California Institute of Architecture and California Institute of Technology team installed a house monitoring and automation system in its DALE house. These whole-house systems monitor and display energy use, which helps homeowners reduce their energy consumption. (Credit: Jason Flakes/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

Many U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon teams have featured home automation systems in their competition houses. For example, in 2013, the Stanford University team installed a home automation system in its Start.Home. The system gathered electricity and water use data and provided continuous feedback to educate and inform the decathletes and visitors. The Solar Decathlon 2013 Southern California Institute of Architecture and California Institute of Technology team also installed a home monitoring and automation system in DALE. This system monitored energy and water consumption while collecting energy-generation data from the house’s photovoltaic array.

Irene Ying and Alexis Powers are members of the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon communications team.

 

 

Strong Ties Lead Solar Decathlon Alum to Career With Team Sponsor

November 10, 2014

By Irene Ying

David Lee works in business development at Lowe’s. He researches new opportunities and new business models that can help the company expand or reach new markets. And he landed this job, he says, thanks to the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon.

Lee was the communications manager of the Appalachian State University Solar Decathlon 2011 team, whose Solar Homestead won the People’s Choice Award. Participating in the Solar Decathlon, he says, provided him with invaluable experience and tools that resonate in the business world.

Photo of a young man speaking at a podium surrounded by a group of people.

David Lee accepts the Solar Decathlon 2011 People’s Choice Award on behalf of Appalachian State University. He says the Solar Decathlon was one of the most powerful experiences of his life. (Credit: Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

“The process of developing a shared vision and the organizational abilities to carry out that vision are skills I developed through the Solar Decathlon that I put to use constantly in my work,” Lee says. “Additionally, during the competition, it was critical to be able to take the most complex technical specifications of home materials, systems, and technology and communicate those ideas succinctly in a way that anyone could understand.”

During the time Lee worked on the Solar Decathlon, he developed strong ties with team sponsors. Lowe’s was the team’s top sponsor and a sustaining sponsor of Solar Decathlon 2011. After that Solar Decathlon, Lee joined Lowe’s staff.

“The two and a half years I spent on the Appalachian State Solar Decathlon team formed the framework of some of the most influential experiences of my adult life. It gave me opportunities to develop a diverse array of skills, reinforced the value of hard work, facilitated deep personal and professional connections, and it directly led into a rewarding career,” Lee says.

Photo of a smiling young man.

David Lee, a Solar Decathlon 2011 alumnus from Appalachian State University, visited Solar Decathlon 2013 in Irvine, California. He says the Solar Decathlon gave him invaluable experience and skills that directly led to a rewarding career. (Credit: Carol Laurie/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

The influence of the Solar Decathlon reaches far beyond offering real-world learning experience to decathletes, Lee says.

“The Solar Decathlon has an impact on every single person who has the chance to see a competition house. These houses show that, without a doubt, living more efficiently and independently, with a smaller environmental impact, in a net-zero-energy home is not something that requires a sacrifice of comfort or is a futuristic pipe dream,” Lee says. “Personal energy independence through affordable efficiency and solar power is a reality that is here today. Sharing that awareness with visitors to the Solar Decathlon is the biggest value that can be delivered.”

Irene Ying is a member of the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon communications team.

 

Solar Decathlon Director Encourages Individual Action in TEDxOrangeCoast Talk

October 29, 2014

By Carol Laurie

You can make a difference. That was the message of Solar Decathlon Director Richard King in his Sept. 19 TEDxOrangeCoast talk about the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon.

Titled “Energy To Live By,” King’s 11-minute talk at the TEDxOrangeCoast Annual Conference in Aliso Viejo, California, introduced the audience to the Solar Decathlon and the powerful impact this award-winning competition has on participating students and visitors.

Throughout his talk, King stressed how important each individual is to reducing the world’s energy use.

“As individuals, we are responsible for 100% of the energy we use in our daily lives. Did it ever occur to you that, as individuals collectively responsible for half of the world’s energy, you have a lot of power?” he says. “I’m not talking about energy or brain power. I am talking about the kind of power that can change the world. Think about that the next time you flip a switch.”

Photo of a man wearing a Solar Decathlon baseball cap.

Solar Decathlon Director Richard King spoke about the benefits of the Solar Decathlon and the power of individuals in reducing world energy use at the TEDxOrangeCoast Annual Conference in September. (Credit: Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

Representatives from the City of Irvine, California, nominated King for consideration by the TEDxOrangeCoast organizers.

“Being invited to give a TED talk is very special, and I was honored by the City of Irvine’s nomination,” King says. “It’s also a very exhilarating experience. All of the speakers during this conference were outstanding, having done something significant in their lives.”

King also invited the audience to visit Solar Decathlon 2015, which will be held at the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, California, Oct. 8 through 18.

See King’s talk to learn more.  And if you like it, pass it on!

Carol Laurie is the communications manager of the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon.

Technology Spotlight: Heat Pumps

October 28, 2014

By Irene Ying

Temperature control, whether heating water for a bath in winter or cooling a bedroom on a blazing summer day, is essential to a comfortable home.

Heating and cooling eat up 48% of an average home’s energy bill, but you can have it all—comfort and efficiency—with heat pump systems. In contrast to conventional temperature control, which is achieved by generating heat or cold, these technologies “transfer” heat, which is far more efficient than creating it. In fact, a modern heat pump uses about 50% less electricity than a furnace or baseboard heater. In moderate climates, heat pumps can provide up to three times the energy they consume. As a bonus, in warm weather, heat pumps can do double-duty as air conditioners by moving hot air outside instead of in.

Three types of heat pumps, differentiated by heat source, are currently available: air, water, and geothermal.

Photo of a heat pump system.

A team member from the Santa Clara University Solar Decathlon 2013 team discusses the heat pump system in the team’s Radiant House. This system used hot water to heat the house and cold water to cool it. (Credit: Carol Laurie/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

Air-based systems generally use fans to extract heat from ambient air outside the house and then transfer the heat indoors. Air-based systems can also run in reverse, transferring indoor heat outdoors to cool the interior. Such systems are the easiest and most economical to install. However, because they rely on outside air temperature, air-source heat pumps are less efficient in climates in which temperatures dip below freezing.

Geothermal systems, which use the heat in the Earth’s crust, can reduce the energy cost of household heating by up to 60%. These systems use long loops of tubing buried in the ground to extract heat from the ground. Because the ground is warmer than air in winter, geothermal systems work more efficiently at lower temperatures than air-source systems. Likewise, the ground is cooler than the air in summer, so geothermal systems are also more efficient air-conditioning devices in hot climates. They are, however, more expensive than air-source installations.

Water-source systems transfer heat throughout a building using closed loops of water. These systems are able to simultaneously move hot and cold water to different parts of a building, depending on the needs. Thus, some parts of a building can be heated while others are cooled. For instance, the unwanted heat of a cold storage room could be used to heat a tank of hot water for washing. In addition, if the water heater is located in the basement, it can extract moisture from the air and act as a dehumidifier in wet summer months. This option can reduce water heating costs by up to 50%. However, this technology can require more extensive work to install.

Air isn’t the only thing that can be efficiently heated by heat exchange; water can also be heated using a heat pump water heater. Similar to the water-source heat pump, heat pump water heater systems work by drawing heat from the surroundings—for example, outdoor air in the summer and the warm ground in the winter—but use the energy to heat water instead of air. Compared to conventional water heaters, heat pump water heaters are up to three times more energy-efficient.

Many U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon teams have used heat pumps to achieve energy-efficient competition houses. In 2013, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte used a pump system with both heating and cooling capabilities, plus a system of capillary cubes circulating water, to achieve cooling without using compressors or refrigerants in the UrbanEden house. The University of Nevada Las Vegas team likewise used pump systems for heating and cooling its DesertSol, which was designed for the extreme conditions of desert living. Radiant House, from Santa Clara University, created a uniform living environment using a water-based heat pump system.

As the Solar Decathlon continues to demonstrate, amenities such as hot showers and air conditioning need not be sacrificed when constructing or living in an energy-efficient home.

Learn more about the benefits of the various types of heat pumps at the Energy Savers website.

Irene Ying is a member of the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon communications team.