Wed Sep 16, 2009 3:08pm EDT
By Chris Baltimore
HOUSTON (Reuters) - A solar-powered house built by a group of Texas students offers a blueprint for recession-hit U.S. families to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions and their electricity bills without busting their budget.
The Zerow House, built by students at Rice University in Houston, will compete against other solar homes in Washington D.C. in October as part of the Solar Decathlon sponsored by the U.S. Energy Department.
But unlike some of its competitors, which are integrating high-concept, high-price features like tricked-out home entertainment systems and moving solar arrays that track the sun, the Rice team's aim is affordability.
"This competition is for showing the public that solar energy is here now and applicable to housing," said Roque Sanchez, a Rice graduate student. "We're taking a house that any family could live in and any family could afford and adding solar to it."
In fact, Rice plans to donate the home to a low-income Houston family after the competition.
The house, about the size of a New York-style efficiency apartment, is a case study in frugality, and could easily be built in Houston for about $100,000, Sanchez said.
If they think "any family" can afford a $100,000 house, they are out of touch with the reality of many families, although it is affordable to many more people than most solar homes that have been built in this country.
Thanks to strong government incentives, Germany is the world's biggest solar market and is expected to remain so until 2013, when the United States will become its equal. China will be slightly behind, according to research firm Lux Research.
The growing market will be a boon for companies like Suntech Power Holdings Co Ltd and SunPower Corp, that make solar panels. The U.S. solar market could triple in 2010 from about 350 megawatts this year, Suntech said.
Rice's entry is in contrast to other entries, like Team Germany from Technische Universitat Darmstadt whose aim is to "push the envelope with as many new technologies as possible," according to the contest's website.
Team Germany, which won top honors in the last contest in 2007, is fielding a modernistic, two-story cube covered with solar cells that can generate 11.1 kilowatts of power -- nearly three times the capacity of the Rice house.
But Sanchez said such high-tech houses miss the goal of making solar technology affordable to Main Street because they cost roughly five times as much as the Rice design.