As my colleague Tilde Herrera reported this week, firms like SolarCity and its customers are taking advantage of the situation. SolarCity's business model of power purchase agreements enables companies to reap the benefits of having lower electricity prices and making a high-profile environmental statement without having to pay for the cost, installation or maintenance of a solar power system. SolarCity pays for and owns it; the business partner hosts it.
The challenge still exists, however, to drive broader adoption of solar power and other renewable energy systems in view of the Obama administration's goals to ease the country's dependency on fossil fuels from foreign and domestic sources. That need brings special significance to the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon 2011, which kicks off today in Washington, D.C.
Nineteen teams of college students are competing to build the most cost-effective, energy efficient, innovative and attractive solar home. This year's contest, a biennial event, emphasizes the importance of affordability -- and can hold lessons for the solar and building industries as well as students.
So far, it seems that students are getting it.
Allison Wilson, leader for the University of Maryland's team, said the contest drives home the point that their designs shouldn't be about bell and whistles. "Your professors never ask you how much it costs," said Wilson, in a panel talk that was webcast yesterday. "Here, you have to make it real, it has to be affordable."
As in real life, choices and opportunity costs arise at every turn. "You're always looking at areas where you can save costs in order to maximize solar efficiency," said Mike Hines, project architect for the team from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Even though, "you might want to put in the latest and greatest technology ..." David Lee, spokesman for Appalachian State University's team, chimed in.
A growing number of companies clearly are getting the idea, too, judging from the list of contest sponsors. They include firms like Dow, which is providing its solar roof materials to two teams in addition to sponsoring events. (There's a picture of what the product looks like on an actual house, right.)
Dow Solar will be talking about its ideas for innovation at GreenBiz Group's Innovation Forum, October 11 through 13 in San Francisco.
Meanwhile, the Solar Decathlon runs through October 3 and the DOE's interactive site at www.solardecathlon.gov allows you to follow the competition and vote on your favorite entries.
Top photo credit: Jacqueline Stewart of Appalachian State University explains the importance of bifacial solar panels, top, while distributing foldable hats that double as a brochure, at the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon in Washington, D.C., Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011. (Credit: Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)