University of Alabama at Birmingham Team Competes in Solar Decathlon

Students from the University of Alabama at Birmingham have revealed their plans to build a house powered entirely by solar energy. The team is competing against 15 others from colleges around the world, all of whom were selected by the 2017 U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon competition.

The rules of the competition require that the house has all the appliances typical of comparable homes and that no level of comfort must be lost despite the fact that all of the energy must be produced by the solar energy generated by the house.

What is more, the house must also produce extra electricity beyond that which is required to operate on-premise appliances in order to qualify as a net-positive solar home. While net-positive energy is not necessary for competition, it does provide extra points.

The students come from a wide range of backgrounds and disciplines in order to address the myriad of concerns and intricacies that are inherent in building a solar-powered home suited to the unique climate of Alabama — a climate that can include heat, tornadoes, and hurricanes.

To combat the former, a new solar collector system has been developed by a UAB team that takes water out of the air. That liquid is then used to dehumidify the air at night and recharge materials during the day in an effort to avoid relying solely on air conditioning.

Making the home resistant to tornadoes proved more difficult, but by using new panels designed by engineers at the UAB Materials Processing and Applications Development Center, the team believes they have found a way to do so. The plan is to incorporate the panels into the walls of at least one room. Using this room as the base, the team’s design allows the house to be reassembled around the tornado room with minimal effort.

“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,” Hessam Taherian, assistant professor in the UAB School of Engineering, and an adviser for the project, told Alabama Newscenter. “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.”

Unfortunately for most homeowners, the costs of the massive renovations necessary to transform a home into a net-zero energy building make it impossible for most. Still, there are a number of small changes homeowners can make.

Something as small as replacing the light bulbs in a home can have a huge effect. After all, lighting represents 11% of the energy use in residential buildings — and the number climbs to 18% in commercial buildings.

Using LED lights that have been ENERGY STAR-rated can mean 75% less energy used compared to incandescent lights. Additionally, the LED lights can last as much as 25 times longer.

But for the UAB team, the practical applications of their home aren’t nearly as important as the psychological ones. As Taherian explained, “We want to fight the misconception that a house using renewable energy means compromising on comfort or performance.”

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