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UAB selected to build solar house for national competition

  • February 15, 2016
UAB one of 16 schools to compete in U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon.
Written by: Katherine Shonesy
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solar 2Team members install solar panels on Day 5 of the 2015 U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon at the Orange County Great Park, Irvine, California. Credit: Thomas Kelsey/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

A team of University of Alabama at Birmingham students will build a house powered completely by solar energy and compete against 15 other colleges from around the world.

UAB is one of 16 collegiate teams selected to participate in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2017 competition. UAB’s team will be made up of students from a variety of disciplines across the university who will be working on the house over the next two years. During that time, the team will design, construct and test their house before reassembling it at the Solar Decathlon 2017 competition site in October 2017.

“The Solar Decathlon attracted more than 60,000 visitors last year, so this is an incredible opportunity for UAB students to showcase their talent and capacity to the world in 2017,” said Bambi Ingram, UAB Sustainability program administrator.

The team’s solar-powered house must be equipped to run all of the usual appliances and accoutrements of any modern house at the same level of a comparable house on a conventional power grid, but with the only source of energy coming from what the house is able to harness itself.

“The U.S., and particularly Alabama, lags behind the rest of the world in the number of net-zero energy buildings built,” said Hessam Taherian, Ph.D., assistant professor in the UAB School of Engineering, and an adviser for this project. “By searching for innovative ways of harnessing and conserving energy, UAB students will have opportunities to develop technology that will be customized to meet the particular challenges of the local environment — from seasonal heat and humidity to surprise tornadoes and thunderstorms.”

Because the houses must be suited to the local climate, the UAB house will be designed with tornadoes in mind. The house will include at least one room with tornado-proof walls, incorporating building panels designed by materials engineers at the Materials Processing and Applications Development (MPAD) Center.

The house will be tested in advance of the judging to ensure that it produces enough energy to power all appliances. For example, students will be required to wash laundry, and clothes will be checked to make sure there is enough power for the dryer to fully dry the clothes. Other appliances will be checked to make sure they meet normal expectations, such as a water heater that can sustain hot water for the typical length of a shower. The house will also have to provide sufficient energy to charge an electric car enough so that the car can be driven 25 miles during the competition.

The team will be required to prepare meals for two dinner parties at which they will host teams from other universities. Frank Stitt, owner and executive chef of Highlands Bar and Grill, Bottega Restaurant, and Chez Fon Fon, helped students develop a Southern-style menu. They will also host a movie night using the house’s audiovisual equipment with snacks prepared in the home’s kitchen. Bonus points will be awarded for any excess power generated by the house.

solar 1Crowds gather in the village on the last day of public tours at the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2015.. Credit: Thomas Kelsey/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon“We want to fight the misconception that a house using renewable energy means compromising on comfort or performance,” Taherian said.

Once the house has been built and tested on the UAB campus, it will be disassembled and transported to a competition site where it will be reassembled in a village, along with the 15 other solar houses. The teams will showcase the houses to the public and provide free tours of renewable energy systems and energy-efficient technologies, products and appliances.

There, the houses will be judged according to strict criteria in 10 separate categories, ranging from architecture and engineering to the performance of the home’s appliances. The winner of the competition will be the team that best blends affordability, consumer appeal and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency.

For the first time in the competition’s history, the Solar Decathlon 2017 teams will be competing for a total of $2 million in prize money.

Once the competition is over, the house will be returned to UAB and will become a permanent “net-zero” building on campus, where it will be available for sustainability research and other uses, all while helping raise awareness and educating the public about renewable energy.

UAB’s team of approximately 20 students will be guided by faculty in the School of Engineering, in partnership with UAB Sustainability and the Collat School of Business, as a component of the project includes marketing and communications activities. The expectation is that the Solar Decathlon will truly be an effort that spans across UAB and into the community.

The UAB Facilities Division will be instrumental to the project through offsetting some costs, providing materials and the construction site, as well as offering construction expertise to the team.

“This project is the perfect example of how we strive to integrate research and innovation processes to operate like a living lab,” said Mike Gebeke, assistant vice president of Facilities Management. “We are really happy to have the opportunity to partner with academic units for this exciting, innovative project that will benefit our entire community.”

UAB will also partner with the University of Alabama at Huntsville and Calhoun Community College for this project.

“The UAB team is anticipating hundreds of man-hours from students, faculty and staff to help complete this project,” Taherian said. “In order for it to be truly successful, significant community support will also be needed. In addition to the cost of building a completely self-sufficient house on campus, the team will be seeking funding for appliances, transportation, lodging and more.”

Donations are being accepted online on UAB’s Solar Decathlon website. To learn more about supporting this project, reach out to a member of the project’s leadership team.