Putting solar panels on the roof is only one of the ways students are capturing energy from the forces of nature at the 2011 Solar Decathlon.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) contest, which this year brings together 20 teams of college students-including competitors from China, Belgium, New Zealand, and Canada-challenges young people to demonstrate that renewable energy can be affordable, attractive, and practical.
(Related: "Quiz: What You Don't Know About Solar Energy")
After months spent perfecting their designs, the students descended on West Potomac Park on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., over the past two weeks to build their model homes. They will be on display and open to the public over the 10 days of the competition, during which the teams will be judged on factors such as architecture, comfort, and power self-sufficiency (known as "energy balance"). The teams have to show their homes can handle the energy demand of laundry, hot showers, and home entertainment.
(For videos of all of the teams, see special coverage by National Geographic partner Planet Forward, or take Planet Forward's quiz to learn which house is right for you.)
The quest to capture energy from the sun inspired many of the teams to integrate other natural features into their designs, as is apparent in the Living Light home (above), the entry from the University of Tennessee's flagship Knoxville campus. The students are shown installing the two-section landscape around their home. One section is meant to be a natural habitat, and the other is for growing local crops. The plants are to be rotated seasonally, and to be fed by rainwater collected from the roof.
Tennessee's students designed a home meant to echo the cantilever barns of southern Appalachia, incorporating the passive designs used by both by the native Cherokee people and early European settlers in Eastern Tennessee. The circulation of air through the building is meant to make the home as comfortable in Tennessee's warm summers as it is in the cold mountain winters.
This year marks the fifth Solar Decathlon; the contest was inaugurated in 2002, and has run every two years since 2005. Team Germany won the overall competition in 2009.
Charlie Rybak is the outreach coordinator for Planet Forward.