UAB unveils first look at completely net-positive solar house headed for competition

Team Alabama joined by others at the site of the solar home.

A team of University of Alabama at Birmingham students are building a house powered completely by solar energy in a competition against 11 other colleges from around the world. The UAB team unveiled the beginning stages of the house in a ceremony at the construction site recently.

UAB is among an elite group of collegiate teams selected for the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2017 competition. UAB’s team is made up of students from a variety of disciplines across the university who have begun working on the house, along with students from neighboring Calhoun Community College.

The team is working toward completing the design, construction and testing of what they dub the surviv(AL) house. Once the house is completed and tested on the UAB campus, it will be disassembled and transported to the Denver competition site, where it will be reassembled in October along with the 11 other solar houses.

“The Solar Decathlon attracted more than 60,000 visitors last year, so this is an incredible opportunity for UAB students to showcase their talent and capacity to the world in 2017,” said Bambi Ingram, UAB Sustainability program administrator.

Team Alabama is preparing to showcase the net-positive solar home. (UAB)

The team’s solar house must be equipped to run all the appliances and accouterments at the same level of a comparable house on a conventional power grid, but with the only source of energy coming from what the house is able to harness itself.

The efficiency of the house will allow it to produce more energy than it consumes, leaving the homeowners or users of the structure with extra energy to use in other ways.

“The U.S., and particularly Alabama, lags behind the rest of the world in the number of net-zero, and especially net-positive, energy buildings built,” said Hessam Taherian, assistant professor in the UAB School of Engineering, and an adviser for the project. “By searching for innovative ways of harnessing and conserving energy, UAB students will have opportunities to develop technology that will be customized to meet the particular challenges of the local environment — from seasonal heat and humidity to surprise tornadoes and thunderstorms.”

Because the houses must be suited to their local climate, the Alabama house will be designed with tornadoes in mind. The house will include at least one room with tornado-resistant walls, incorporating panels designed by engineers in the UAB Materials Processing and Applications Development Center. The design will allow for the house to be efficiently reassembled surrounding that tornado room, should a natural disaster occur.

The house will also be built to beat the Alabama heat. A UAB-developed solar collector system helps cool the house by taking water out of the air and reducing energy costs. A device dehumidifies the air inside the home at night and recharges the material during the day, reducing the overall load on the home’s air conditioning system.

The house will be tested in advance of the judging to ensure it produces enough energy to power all appliances. For example, students will be required to wash laundry, and clothes will be checked to make sure there is enough power for the dryer to fully dry the clothes. Other appliances will be checked to make sure they meet normal expectations, such as a water heater that can sustain hot water for the typical length of a shower. The house will have to provide sufficient energy to charge an electric car so that it can be driven 25 miles.

The team will be required to prepare meals for two dinner parties at which they will host teams from other universities. They will also host a game night using the house audiovisual equipment, with snacks prepared in the kitchen. Bonus points will be awarded for any excess power generated by the house.

“We want to fight the misconception that a house using renewable energy means compromising on comfort or performance,” Taherian said.

Stringent criteria

The teams will showcase the houses to the public and provide free tours of renewable energy systems and energy-efficient technologies, products and appliances.

The houses will be judged according to strict criteria in 10 separate categories, ranging from architecture and engineering to the performance of the appliances. The winner will be the team that best blends affordability, consumer appeal and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency.

The Solar Decathlon village and competition houses will be open to the public at 61st & Peña Station near the University of Colorado. A free commuter train will be available:

  • Thursday, Oct. 5-Sunday, Oct. 8: 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
  • Monday, Oct. 9: 1-7 p.m.
  • Thursday, Oct. 12-Sunday, Oct. 15: 11 a.m.-7 p.m.

The Solar Decathlon 2017 teams will compete for a minimum of $100,000 and a maximum of $300,000 in prizes.

Once the competition is over, the house will be returned to UAB as a permanent net-positive building on campus, where it will be available for sustainability research and other uses, while helping raise awareness and educating the public about renewable energy.

UAB’s team of 60 students is guided by faculty in the School of Engineering, in partnership with UAB Sustainability and the Collat School of Business, as a component of the project includes marketing and communications activities.

Industry partners have been equally important in the progress of the project. Williams Blackstock Architects, for instance, has offered its services in helping students, faculty and staff with the design. Additional industry partners will be key to the project’s success.

A team effort

Team Alabama’s Solar Decathlon effort so far has truly spanned across campuses and into the community.

The UAB Facilities Division continues to be instrumental to the project through offsetting some costs, providing materials and the construction site, as well as offering construction expertise to the team.

“This project is the perfect example of how we strive to integrate research and innovation processes to operate like a living lab,” said Mike Gebeke, assistant vice president of Facilities Management. “We are really happy to have the opportunity to partner with academic units for this exciting, innovative project that will benefit our entire community.”

“Team Alabama is already accumulating what will become hundreds of man-hours from students, faculty and staff to help complete this project,” Taherian said. “In order for it to be truly successful, significant community support will also be needed. In addition to the cost of building a completely self-sufficient house on campus, the team will be seeking funding for building materials, appliances, transportation, lodging and more.”

Donations are being accepted online on UAB’s Solar Decathlon website. To learn more about supporting this project, reach out to a member of the project’s leadership team here.

Alabama Power is a supporter of this project.

Republished with permission of Alabama NewsCenter.


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