Go Bucks! OSU Solar Decathlon Team Shows Solar Can Grow Jobs, Save Money for Ohioans

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“We wanted to eliminate the utility bill. And we wanted to show we could build an economy around Ohio production.” That’s what Ohio State University mechanical engineering student Ellen Gentry told me about her team’s entry into one of the most exciting intercollegiate competitions happening this fall: the US Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon.

The Solar Decathlon, which takes place now through Sunday on the National Mall in Washington DC, pits 20 teams from around the globe against each other in a competition as exciting as any college bowl game, and it’s got rules I can actually follow. After six events, Ohio State’s team is now in second place, behind the Terps from the University of Maryland. Go Bucks!

OSU's entry, being assembled here, uses solar panel's produced at Toledo's First Solar facility. Jobs at the plant have more than doubled in the last five years, to 1200. (Photo credit: US Dept. of Energy)

The college groups are competing for bragging rights over who can create the most affordable, well-designed, 1000 square-foot home that produces all of its own energy. Of course, in this competition, it’s not just hard-working college students who win. All of us do. The Solar Decathlon proves our country can break free of our fossil-fuel addiction, if only we apply the brain power and creativity of our young people.

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Five thousand visitors toured Ohio State's enCORE House this weekend at the US Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon, on Washington's National Mall. The house produces as much energy as it uses, pointing the way to homebuilders and policymakers alike. (Photo credit: US Dept. of Energy)

Maybe you’re wondering, though: A home that produces all of its own energy? Isn’t that unheard of, or affordable only by movie stars? Surely the Decathlon isn’t so relevant to cloudy Ohio.

Actually, it is. Since its inception in 2002, the Decathlon has proved just how wallet-friendly and practical solar is, even in places like the Buckeye State. This year’s winning home will cost only about $250,000. The entries use photovoltaic solar panels for electricity and solar thermal systems for hot water and space heating. The entries emphasize smart design and energy efficiency, too. “The winner of the competition is the team that best blends cost-effectiveness, consumer appeal, and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency,” the DOE explains on the event website.

As I mentioned, I’m a sucker for the Ohio State team. Not only is their design eye-catching and affordable, it can accommodate a family of three or four. Just as impressive, it’s an Ohio-centric home that shows renewable energy means jobs in the Buckeye State. The enCORE house, as the Ohio State entry is called, sports solar panels manufactured in Toledo, at the First Solar plant. Jobs at that plant have more than doubled in the last five years, to more than 1200; this despite the floundering economy and the shifting of much of the country’s industrial production overseas. At First Solar’s Toledo facility, jobs range from traditional manufacturing positions to administration and research; there are more of them every day. “We’re definitely continuing to grow here in Ohio,” confirms company communications specialist Melanie Friedman.

As much as the Solar Decathlon is about competition—with 10 separate contests used to determine the winner—it’s also about showing policy makers and home-builders what’s possible. It shows states governments that emphasizing their renewable resources—not only solar radiation, but also intellect and enthusiasm—can lead to job growth. That’s what happened after the University of Colorado Solar Decathlon team beat out the competition in 2005. “We demonstrated that the state of Colorado could do better in terms of maximizing its renewable energy potential,” says team project manager Jeff Lyng, now chair of the American Solar Energy Society. Taking that information into account, the state ramped up its renewable energy goals; large utilities there are now required to get 30 percent of their electricity from clean sources by 2020. That drove sizeable job gains in the state’s clean energy sector. “It was another example of how homegrown state clean-energy policy can bring in manufacturers locally,” Lyng says. “Ohio can do that, too, with the right renewable energy policies.”