GLOBAL: Ivory towers to solar-powered houses

The adrenalin buzz among the professors and university students is palpable during the construction of futuristic structures that run exclusively on energy generated by the sun. But these are not mere models; they are real houses that can run everything from washing machines to air conditioning systems, all from solar power.

"I have worked on this project, that started from virtually nothing, for the last 18 months and finally the house is here!" enthusiastically exclaims Erwan Etienne, 23, an engineering student from Arts et Métiers Paris Technology.

"I have had to work with communication students to help raise the sponsorship, architectural students, carpenters and many others to achieve it," Etienne says. "Normally we do not have the opportunity to do that; but here all our knowledge has been shared and so we have been able to achieve it. We have learnt a huge amount."

Etienne has been competing in an international event involving 17 universities from seven countries and three continents. The Solar Decathlon competition is so-called because it involves 10 separate objective and subjective tests including architecture, energy balance, comfort of conditions and appliances, marketability, innovation and sustainability.

The aim of the competition, held from 18-27 June in Madrid, has been to raise awareness in universities about the importance of developing energy-efficient houses, among citizens about the ecological and economic value of conserving energy, and among industry to stimulate incorporation of cutting-edge designs and technologies into new buildings and everyday life.

Some 190,000 visitors have borne witness to its enormous success.

"This competition has been run by the US Department of Energy in Washington since 2002," explains José Manuel Páez Borrallo, Vice-rector of International Relations at the University Polytechnic of Madrid or UPM. "But this is the first time it has been held in Europe."

"UPM became involved in 2005 when a Spanish company - one of the leaders in manufacturing solar panels in Europe - decided the best way to develop its business in the US was to sponsor a university to compete. We then came to an agreement with the US department and the Spanish Ministry of Housing to hold the event in Madrid in 2010 and 2012."

There are some key differences between the US and the European version of the event. First, the European organisers have added the concept of 'sustainability' to the criteria being judged. Second, the European event is more international as it includes universities from Asia, Europe and the Americas.

Finally, a series of complementary events are being held, including professional conferences, stalls for sponsors to present their products, awareness-raising competitions for children and teenagers, and a programme of open activities so everyone can find out about solar energy and its uses.

Are the buildings more expensive than traditional houses? "Yes when you build the first one but not when you build lots," replies Páez Borrallo. "It is a bit like Formula 1: each car is very expensive to construct initially but when the product reaches the mass market prices can fall dramatically."

German universities have won two of the previous competitions, spending up to EUR3 million (US$3.65 million) on the construction of their houses.

Each university team starts with a EUR100,000 grant from the organisers, which in the case of the French team, for example, was supplemented by a further EUR150,000 from local government.

And each university then has to try to convince representatives from industry, public bodies, professionals and anyone else they can, to donate hard cash or other resources to the project.

"The development of each house includes a combination of technological, fundraising and management elements," Borrallo says.

One of the most interesting by-products of the competition is the way it has fostered a strong cooperative ethos between academic departments. At UPM, this new spirit has led to the development of innovative curricula and academic programmes, as well as new materials that can be used to teach future students.

"Entering this competition has compelled us to work in a multidisciplinary way and to tight deadlines," explains Borrallo. "If we hadn't had the excuse of this competition we simply wouldn't have done it."

The eventual winner, announced on 27 June, was Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in the US. In a sense, however, all the universities were winners because they had already been selected from a much larger pool of candidates.

"Solar energy is a very hot topic [sic] and here we have been able to put theory into practice and build something that people can actually live in," says Tao Lu, 21, a mechanical engineering student from Tongji University in China that came 11th in the competition.

"This is my first time abroad and I am enjoying communicating with students from all over the world and learning about the latest technologies that they are employing. You can see our house is made from bamboo and it has a curved roof inspired by Chinese Taoist philosophy. From design to implementation Tongji University students have been involved at every stage."