Solar Decathlon 2.0

Building Up the Base of the Pyramid

Imagine groups of college students, working together with community leaders around the globe, in a contest to develop cutting edge, small, affordable, solar-powered homes for a pre-determined location. 

Imagine 20 of those teams assembling their homes on a micro-grid and opening them for inspection by architects, engineers, and leaders from the community where they will be located, along with thousands of visitors interested in learning more about how they were built and where they will be used. 

Imagine a jury comprised of building professionals and representatives from the target community ranking the contest submissions, with the highest ranked designer then partnering with homebuilders and private sector investors committed to mass producing their homes using local materials and labor. 

Finally, imagine, those homes being built by a tri-sector partnership of business, government, and nonprofit leaders in slums or refugee camps around the world or on Native American reservations in the United States, where they would be used to help address the crippling levels of homelessness through a micro-financing lease-to-own program. 

Imagine this, as the next chapter of the Solar Decathlon. 


The U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon is an award-winning program that challenges collegiate teams to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive. The benefits of Solar Decathlon in its current model are three-fold in that it:

  1. Educates student participants and the public about the many cost-saving opportunities presented by clean-energy products;
  2. Demonstrates the opportunities presented by cost-effective houses that combine energy-efficient construction and appliances with renewable energy systems available today; and
  3. Provides participating students with unique training that prepares them to enter the clean-energy workforce.

Visitors tour the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2011 in Washington, D.C., Friday, Sept. 30, 2011, with Arlington, VA, left, and the Lincoln Memorial, right, in the background. (Credit: Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

Judges select the winner at each Solar Decathlon as “the team that best blends affordability, consumer appeal, and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency.” While collegiate teams built 114 homes for the U.S. Solar Decathlon between 2002 and 2015, only 37 of those homes were being used for permanent residential or guest housing as of May 2017. The remainder have been converted to office space or cannibalized for use in new homes.

Therefore, while there were seven “winners” of the U.S. Solar Decathlon during that period, we need more winners—thousands of them—individuals and families in need of affordable, sustainable housing, living in homes inspired by the Solar Decathlon.

Former decathlete, Erin Reilly-Sanders of Ohio State 2009, revisits the Solar Decathlon to see the 2011 entries and takes a close look at the model of the Parsons NS Stevens entry in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2011 in Washington, D.C., Friday, Sept. 23, 2011. (Credit: Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

In his book, The Third Industrial Revolution, Jeremy Rifkin addresses how “the five pillars of the Third Industrial Revolution will create thousands of businesses and millions of jobs, and usher in a fundamental reordering of human relationships, from hierarchical to lateral power, that will impact the way we conduct business, govern society, educate our children, and engage in civic life.” According to Alistair Pim, blogging for event sponsor Schneider Electric, those pillars—renewable energy, buildings that generate positive energy, energy storage systems, a smart grid, and electric vehicles “were present and accounted for at the Solar Decathlon” held in Paris in the summer of 2014.  

Rifkin says that “synergies between the pillars create a new economic paradigm that can transform the world.” With those pillars already in place, the Solar Decathlon is poised to be a part of this transformation if its focus shifts to optimizing solutions for housing and power access by those at the base of the pyramid. This is far more urgent than designing homes for the developed world, which the free market can provide.  

Student participants from Middlebury College support the Solar Decathlon in 2011. (Credit: Bob Bissen)

With that in mind, moving forward, the objective of U.S. Solar Decathlon should be to design and build an inexpensive, solar-powered home that can be replicated and built by a tri-sector partnership at a pre-determined location in need of housing and electricity. While addressing the housing needs, this would also help achieve United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 7, to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all by 2030. 

The possible locations in need of both housing and electricity—in this case via solar power—are many. A Christian Science Monitor article published April 3, 2012, noted that:  

“One of the major opportunities lies in providing energy access for the more than 1.2 billion people who don’t have electricity, most of whom, in business-as-usual scenarios, still won’t have it in 2030…These are the poorest people on the planet. If we want the poor to benefit from electricity we cannot wait for the grid, and we cannot rely on fossil fuels. The International Energy Agency, historically a grid-centric, establishment voice, admits that half of those without electricity today will never be wired. The government of India estimates that two-thirds of its non-electrified households need distributed power.”  

An article posted on Energy Digital on August 7, 2014, following the U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit, observed that “it’s no secret energy access in Africa is extremely limited and many countries rely on dirty biomass for power.” There are other opportunities as well. Think of the housing and energy needs in the favelas of Brazil, refugee camps in the Middle East, or the townships in South Africa, to name just a few.  

It’s not necessary to leave the United States to find those in need of both housing and electricity. According to the Tribal Law and Policy Institute, “an estimated 200,000 housing units are needed immediately in Indian country for approximately 90,000 Native American families homeless or under-housed.” The Energy Information Administration estimates that 14 percent of households on Native American reservations have no access to electricity, 10 times higher than the national average.  

Vijay Govindarajan and Christian Sarkar, through The $300 House, and Bill Gross, through IdeaLab and WorldHaus, have already laid out models for the type of home that could be designed, built and mass-produced for those at the base of the pyramid through the Solar Decathlon. The $300 House was designed to get people thinking of how to replace “unsafe structures with a mass-produced, standard, affordable, and sustainable solution…the $300-House-for-the-Poor.” Of WorldHaus, Gross says, “we haven’t quite made the $300 house. But at $249 down and $29 a month, we believe we have made the $300 house down payment a reality that may be able to scale.”

WorldHaus notes on its website that “lower income groups are not looking for low-quality products with second-rate amenities.” With that in mind, they list three core values which—building on the current benefits outlined above—could be adopted by all those competing in the Solar Decathlon:  

  • Do Not Compromise on Quality  
  • Make Unaffordable Affordable  
  • Be a Responsible Corporate Citizen Displaying Integrity and Transparency in Every Phase of Business  

The objective is to turn the Solar Decathlon from a mere contest with a single winner into a bigger and more impactful project, one that can be replicated many times through tri-sector partnership for the direct benefit of those in need. To achieve this objective, the Solar Decathlon would need to incorporate significant changes in how it is organized and operated. But those changes, if made in true partnership across all sectors and with the needs of those at the base of the pyramid at the forefront, could lead to tremendous benefits for those in need.

Imagine neighborhoods and villages around the world,
 where residents live in solar-powered homes imagined and engineered by college students, with input from the residents, built using local materials and labor, and purchased through an affordable micro-financing program. Imagine this, as the legacy of the Solar Decathlon.
Solar Decathlon 2.0.

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