You Can Hide the PV: The Solar Decathlon and the State of Residential Solar in California

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Solar Decathlon winners, Team Austria, designers of LISI, above (photo: Jason Flakes; courtesy of DOE), say solar energy is so commonplace now there is no longer any need to show off the panels to prove ones commitment to eco-friendliness. Is that true?

Here are two segments looking at the state of solar in California.

The first takes us to the start of the Solar Decathlon as designers scrambled to finish their net zero energy homes, that had been selected by the Department of Energy. We hear from the designers of the entries from USC, Sci-Arc and the Czech Republic. The opening of the Decathlon coincided with the signing of AB 327, a state assembly bill that could have both a heating, and cooling, effect on the burgeoning residential solar industry in California.

With Richard King, Daniel Lee, Martin Čeněk, Bernadette del Chiaro, Gary Paige.

The second segment follows up after a winner is announced, and goes into greater depth about net energy metering and why it matters to the future of solar in California. With Sebastian Ortner, Bernadette del Chiaro, Jeremy Levine, Mary Leslie and Mark Toney.

In the past two weeks almost 60,000 people went to the Orange County Great Park in Irvine to check out the “Solar Decathlon.” That’s the exhibition of net zero energy houses, designed and built by students for a biannual competition created by the DOE. Students designs for houses ranging from 600 – 1000 square feet were assessed in ten categories for quality of architecture, engineering, affordability, marketability and more, and winners were picked.

IMG_6981The overall winner, out of 19 entries, was LISI, meaning both a woman’s name and, here, “Living Inspired by Sustainable Innovation.” This was an elegant box of a house designed by a team from the Vienna University of Technology in Vienna, Austria; it featured flowing inside outside space, wooden construction and surfaces and a fluttering white curtain hanging around the entire perimeter (shown left, team designer Sebastian Ortner).

In second place was the University of Nevada at Las Vegas with their The Desert Sol, a highly insulated vacation home with rough rusted metal and wood on the outside, luxury materials on the inside and a smorgasbord of energy saving technology including photovoltaic solar panels with high efficiency micro-inverters, a ductless heat pump system eliminating the energy losses and an energy recovery ventilation system recovers 70%-80% of the energy in outgoing air and transfers it to the incoming fresh air.

IMG_7012The project won in the “marketability” category, and team captain Alexia Chen, shown right, standing by the sun-heated hot water pipes that warm the house in the desert cold, says they are now trying to persuade their sponsors PKMM, a builder of emergency shelter, to take their design to market.

In third place came Team Czech, a first-time entry from the Czech Republic. A delighted project designer, Martin Čeněk, shown below left, near the rear deck of their wooden house, said that two years work, and a 16,000 mile trip over land and sea from Prague, had been worth all the effort.

Their house, made of wood and featuring a combination of active and passive features was designed for both warm climates like California’s and for colder places like his home country — with  a 180 degree flip of the design the shaded south side and the open north side (for Cally) could suit northern climes.

Solar No Longer Needs to Flaunt Itself

IMG_6984What was especially interesting about the Austrian design is that you could not actually see the solar panels; designer Sebastian Ortner, shown above, says this was a design choice reflecting the team’ contention that solar has become so commonplace now that there is no need to flaunt ones eco-friendliness.

This might be true of Austria, where the high cost of energy means they have to design sustainably. But is it so here? Maybe. Bernadette del Chiaro, executive director of the California Solar Energies Industries Association, says California nows has “a nuclear reactor’s worth of solar.”

It turns out California now leads the nation in energy derived from solar power. Large homebuilders are embracing the technology. KB Home has built 1800 homes with rooftop solar panels since 2011, mostly in Southern California. And Google and other tech companies are joining the rush to build massive solar farms. But will this continue? Last week Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that may have both a heating, and cooling, effect on the growth of solar power.

A Bill With a Heating, and Cooling, Effect on Solar

AB 327 does what the solar industry has been demanding for a long time: it raises the cap on so-called “net-energy metering.” This is the tool that has contributed most significantly to making solar technology affordable to regular homeowners, because it enables them to connect to the universal power grid and sell excess energy into the grid when solar-powered homes generate too much energy, and, conversely, to buy back energy from the grid at cooler times like at night, when the pv cells are not generating enough fuel.

But along with lifting the cap comes some possible disincentives, still to be agreed upon by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), such as a possible $10 monthly utility fee slapped on all households, and maybe even the renegotiating of contracts, from lease to buy. All of this is discussed by developer/architect Jeremy Levine, the LA Business Council’s Mary Leslie, and Mark Toney of TURN, the Utility Reform Network.

Leslie says we have “arrived at a moment of truth” for the solar industry as multiple business models and companies compete for dominance. But Toney says the future is bright, in a time when consumers can choose from many purchase options and substantially cheaper solar energy technology.

Jeremy Levine concludes with a reminder that one 240 kilowatt solar panel conserves eight trees.

SMC tree