Photo of Janet Conroy watering vegetation outside Team Capitol DC’s Solar Decathlon 2013  house.

U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

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Solar Decathlon Frequently Asked Questions

These frequently asked questions provide a short overview of the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon. If you have a question that is not answered here or elsewhere on the site, please contact us.

What is the Solar Decathlon?

The U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon challenges collegiate teams to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are affordable, energy-efficient, and attractive. The winner of the competition is the team that best blends cost-effectiveness, consumer appeal, and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency. The first Solar Decathlon was held in 2002; the competition has since occurred biennially in 2005, 2007, 2009, 2011, and 2013.

The next Solar Decathlon will take place Oct. 8–18, 2015, at the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, California. The Solar Decathlon competition houses will be open to visitors from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily on eight days over two weekends:

  • Thursday, Oct. 8–Sunday, Oct. 11, 2015
  • Thursday, Oct. 15–Sunday, Oct. 18, 2015.

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Why hold a Solar Decathlon?

The Solar Decathlon serves several purposes. It:

  • Demonstrates to the public the opportunities presented by affordable homes that combine energy-efficient construction and appliances with renewable energy systems that are available today

  • Provides student participants with unique training to help fill jobs in our nation's clean-energy economy

  • Fosters collaboration among students from different academic disciplines, including engineering and architecture students, who otherwise may not work together until they enter the workplace

  • Promotes an integrated, or "whole building design," approach to new construction, which differs from the traditional design/build process because the team considers the interactions of all building components and systems to create a more comfortable building, save energy, and reduce environmental impact

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Who competes in the Solar Decathlon?

Teams from colleges and universities across the globe participate in the Solar Decathlon. Today's students are tomorrow's engineers, architects, scientists, entrepreneurs, and homeowners. The Solar Decathlon encourages students to incorporate energy efficiency and clean energy into their future professional projects and personal lives.

Like Olympic athletes, the solar decathletes draw on all their strengths, including design and architecture, engineering and performance, and education and promotion. The teams rely on expertise from many disciplines as they spend months fundraising, planning, designing, analyzing, and finally building and improving their houses. Future engineers work with future architects to create affordable, energy-efficient houses.

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How are the competitors selected?

Teams composed of faculty and students from numerous post-secondary institutions submit proposals and plans for consideration. Applications are evaluated by a panel of engineers, scientists, and building experts. Teams are required to meet specific criteria to demonstrate their ability to design and build an innovative, entirely solar-powered house; raise additional funds; support the project through well-integrated curricula; and assemble a team to carry the project through to completion. In addition, a panel of professionals evaluates conceptual designs from proposers. The results of their evaluations, combined with scores based on the four criteria listed above, determined the Solar Decathlon teams.

If you are interested in competing in a future Solar Decathlon, learn how to apply.

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How many teams apply?

Selected teams can be proud that they are among a select group of schools and students to take part in the unique educational and workforce development opportunity that is the Solar Decathlon. However, per federal requirements, the number of applications received is confidential.

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What goes into building and operating a Solar Decathlon house?

The student teams spend almost two years designing and building their houses and preparing for the competition. Students test their houses to ensure optimal energy production and maximum efficiency.

The competition places demands on the buildings' energy systems to maintain the house within a certain temperature range, to provide lighting, to run appliances, and much more. The houses generate energy with photovoltaic (also called solar electric) systems that produce electricity and with solar thermal systems for space heating and cooling and water heating.

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Who sponsors the Solar Decathlon?

Private-sector sponsors help support the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon, which is organized by DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). DOE is thankful for the support provided by past sponsors and is currently working with organizations interested in sponsoring Solar Decathlon 2015.

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What are the 10 contests?

The Solar Decathlon 2013 contests were:

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Where can I see the house designs?

Complete "as-built" drawings and submittals from past Solar Decathlon teams can be downloaded from:

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How much do the houses cost?

The construction costs of the team houses vary based on the technologies employed and the target market for which they were designed. In 2011, Solar Decathlon teams competed in a new contest—Affordability—that rewarded full points for teams that built houses with costs estimated at or less than $250,000. In this way, the Solar Decathlon showcases affordable houses that combine energy-efficient construction and appliances with renewable energy systems available today.

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What happens to the houses after the competition?

Some of the houses are sold to recover costs or raise money for future teams. Most of the houses, however, are used for research and are on display for public tours at their respective universities. Learn more about each of the houses from the following Solar Decathlon competitions:

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