Schools Go For Gold At Solar Decathlon

Recycled blue jeans, solar panels and smart phones all helped make homes more energy efficient in this year's Solar Decathlon. Twenty teams are in the nation's capital, vying for the top prize in architecture, engineering and other fields. Winners will be announced later this week.

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MICHEL NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

And it's time now for All Tech Considered.

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How energy efficient is your home? Maybe you've weather-stripped your doors or sealed a drafty window, but can you move your walls depending on where the sun is, or monitor your electricity usage with your phone? Those are just some of the features on display here in Washington, D.C. on the National Mall. Twenty teams are competing in this year's solar decathlon. The goal is to design, build and operate the most attractive, effective and energy-efficient solar-powered house. And as NPR's David Gura reports, there's efficient and then there's efficient.

DAVID GURA: I'm standing on the National Mall just to the east of the Washington monument, the Capitol building is to my left and in front of me is a small neighborhood: 20 homes, each of which is really, really energy efficient.

Mr. KYLE BELCHER(ph): So, this is the Refract House.

GURA: Kyle Belcher is standing outside one of the houses, greeting visitors.

Mr. BELCHER: This home provides about a 150 percent of its peak energy needs. So, on a day like today, we're producing a net surplus of energy and giving energy back into the power grid.

GURA: It's a warm, fall morning and the sun is shining. Refract House is tube shaped. It pivots around a beautiful deck made out of reclaimed elm wood, the roof is filled with solar panels. It's insulation is made out of recycled denim and every appliance and light fixture is connected to a software program called the Building Dashboard.

Mr. NOAH GREER(ph) (Student, California College of the Arts): From anywhere in the world, when you're on vacation in Hawaii, you can log in online and see how your house is doing in terms to energy usage, energy production, even water usage.

GURA: Noah Greer is a architecture student at the California College of the Arts. He says, you can use Building Dashboard, which is commercially available, to open and close window shades, to turn lights on and off and to adjust the house's heating and cooling systems. In North House, another building in the competition, there's a similar interface, integrated into the design. Johnny Rogers(ph), a master student at Simon Fraser University, shows me a screen, built into the kitchen wall. Then he reaches into his pocket and pulls out an iPhone. North House has its own iPhone application. He taps the screen.

Mr. JOHNNY ROGERS (Student, Simon Fraser University): You land at a page that provides feedback on your energy consumption and solar production -solar energy production.

GURA: It's elegant with bright, colorful graphs and it's smart.

Mr. ROGERS: Your house also provides you with alerts that are sent to your phone, so you can see, you know, tips, information on consumption, so that you can adjust your (unintelligible) on the fly.

GURA: Another house in the solar decathlon called Lumen House, also has a sophisticated computer system and an iPhone app. Incredibly, you can use a smart phone to change how the building looks. On each side of the house, there are giant metal panels. They're programmed to open and close depending on where the sun is in the sky. So, if it's a particularly clear night and you want to look out the window at the stars, you can override the system to keep those panels open. Judging in the solar decathlon will continue till Friday.

David Gura, NPR News.

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