Every four years, the summer Olympics awards a gold medal for the decathlon. The winner becomes “the world’s greatest athlete.” After facing two days of grueling athletic competition in 10 events—which includes sprint races, jumps, as well as throwing a heavy disc and a long spear called a javelin—the winners have proven themselves to be “the world’s greatest.”
Every other year, another competition challenges college students to build the world’s best solar homes. The students don’t have to run, jump, or throw a disc, but they have to show that their solar home can outdo other homes in 10 contests. This international event, called the Solar Decathlon, is organized by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and is supported with in-kind donations from organizations such as Dow Corning, Lowe’s, M.C. Dean Inc., Pepco, and Schneider Electric.
New this year is the sustaining level sponsorship from Dow Corning, a global leader in silicones and silicon-based technology. Dow Corning is sponsoring the educational partnership of this year’s event by overseeing the creation of educational resources that will strengthen our understanding of solar energy and sustainability and of the importance of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
“There has never been a more important time to further develop viable, renewable, clean, domestically generated energy sources, and there is no better way to achieve that goal than by challenging great minds from universities all over the world,” says Robert D. Hansen, President and Chief Executive Officer of Dow Corning. “The students’ hard work is a testament to the endless possibilities attainable through math and science education.”
The Solar Decathlon puts 20 teams of college students from around the world in head-to-head competition across the 10 contests. DOE helps get things started by giving each school a $100,000 grant. The completed house is transported to the decathlon site in Washington, D.C., and reassembled for judging and public viewing. The houses must be between 600 square feet and 1,000 square feet in size.
The contests are both clever and demanding. Some are evaluated by a jury, as in gymnastics or ice skating. Other contests are determined by specific measurements, such as power consumption or total energy produced. In the remaining contests, points are awarded for the satisfactory completion of a task. In the most recent Decathlon, which was held in 2009, the winner was Team Germany, a group of students from the University of Darmstadt. Their house looked like a huge black box that intrigued the judges and the public, and drew long lines of people seeking a look inside. One of the reasons this solar house was so successful was that nearly every bit of its outside surface was coated with solar panels. Team Germany placed first in the Net Metering and Comfort Zone contests.