SOLAR DECATHLON:

At competition finale, Chu defends DOE solar program, hails American ingenuity

Energy Secretary Steven Chu used his address at the closing ceremony of this year's Solar Decathlon to shoot back at critics who have used the failure of the Solyndra Inc. solar energy company to question his agency's renewable energy investments.

"Just as there is a fierce competition happening here, there is also a fierce competition happening around the world," Chu said Saturday.

"The United States faces a choice today: Will we sit on the sidelines and fall behind or will we play to win the clean energy race? ... I challenge the naysayers to come to this Solar Decathlon, visit these houses, feel the student energy, touch their creativity and tell them they can't win."

Chu was at the decathlon site on the edge of the National Mall on Saturday to help recognize the University of Maryland, which after 10 days of competition, emerged from a field of 19 collegiate teams from around the world to claim first place in the popular solar energy competition.

In his address, Chu said the United States cannot afford to sit on the sidelines in the race to develop clean energy technologies and that is why DOE made "a historic investment" in renewable energy technologies through its section 1705 loan guarantee program.

It is that controversial program, which earned funding through the 2009 stimulus bill, that gave Solyndra more than half-a-billion dollars in loans before the company declared bankruptcy in late August.

As of Friday, which was the deadline to finalize loans under the program, DOE had closed 28 loans for a total of more than $16 billion under the program. Four projects that DOE had been considering were not finalized before the deadline (see related story).

"These loan guarantee projects will generate enough clean electricity to power more than two-and-a-half-million homes," Chu said. "And combined with our other loan programs, they're expected to support more than 60,000 direct jobs, plus jobs throughout the supply chain."

Chu said that with stimulus-funded programs coming to an end, the government needs to ask itself, "Where do we go from here?"

"In past times of national stress, we took the long view and invested in our future," Chu said. "We need to take the long view and invest in the future. That's what made America great, and that's how we will prevail."

Fear the turtle

Held every two years, the Solar Decathlon challenges students to build affordable and architecturally attractive homes that use solar power to provide hot water and energy for a variety of household appliances.

Maryland's winning "WaterShed" design was inspired by the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem.

The house was created to be a model for how to preserve watersheds by managing rain water, filtering pollutants from wastewater and minimizing overall water use. The photovoltaic and solar thermal arrays on the structure's distinct split butterfly roof also proved effective despite a week of mostly overcast and rainy weather (Greenwire, Sept. 28).

Maryland was one of just seven teams that produced as much energy as its house needed during the 10-day competition.

In the competition's 10 judged categories, Maryland took or tied for first place in three: energy balance, hot water production and architectural design. It finished in second or third place in five other categories and took fourth place in the engineering category and 12th place in the affordability category. The team earned a total of 951 out of a possible 1,000 points.

"The innovation, creativity, skill, vision, cooperation, determination, and, yes, energy displayed by this team is both remarkable and a joy," said University of Maryland President Wallace Loh in a news release Saturday.

Loh called WaterShed "a model for how to live in harmony with the complex ecosystem of the largest estuary in the United States."

Now that the competition is over, Amy Gardner, an associate professor of architecture at the University of Maryland who helped advise the team, said Maryland is working on finding a long-term home for WaterShed but said today that there is no word yet on a final destination.

Maryland's win comes four years after placing second in the competition. In 2007 and 2009 a team from Germany took first place in the contest.

Purdue University took second place in this year's competition, coming in just 20 points behind Team Maryland.

Among the international teams, New Zealand, representing Victoria University of Wellington, performed the best, taking third place in the competition. Team Canada took 10th place, Team China took 15th place, and Team Belgium finished 16th.

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