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Blinded by the Light
[October 06, 2002]

By Nicholas Provenzo

For the past week, the National Mall in Washington has been host to the Department of Energy's "Solar Decathlon," a collegiate competition and demonstration project to build a 500 square foot home powered only by the sun. Despite generous government and corporate support, none of the teams were able to design and build a home for less than double, if not triple the cost of regular housing of the same size.

All the projects on display had major design flaws. The winning design, built by engineering and architecture students of the University of Colorado, lacked such amenities as closets. The design entered by Carnegie Mellon University had second-story sleeping quarters and a porch that was only accessible by a flimsy aluminum ladder. The University of Virginia placed its lead-acid battery bank on the second floor in a compartment, again only accessible by ladder and a nightmare location if a failed battery had to be switched out. All the HVAC systems looked as if they needed a full-time engineer to man the gages. Nevertheless, the lack cost-effectiveness and sensibility didn't stop any of the teams form heralding their projects as designs of the future.

That's not to say that there weren't some interesting ideas put on display. Several of the participants brought back the “shotgun shack” of southern lore as a means to facilitate cool breezes in the hot summer sun and that seemed to make at least some sense. Many homes included the efficient placement of windows and vents to create a natural convection to cool and heat the house. Some schools used innovative materials such as pressed bamboo, to name just one, and many of these materials did have esthetic charm. And the University of Colorado team did grasp that many of the ideas it presented were pie in the sky, so it at least made some effort to explain what was practical today.

But the main premise of the Solar Decathlon was not practicality. Perhaps the most bizarre design idea offered was the University of Texas at Austin team’s Airstream Trailer that was gutted to serve as the cooking and laundry component of their design. This was done apparently on the grounds that you may want to haul your washing machine with you next time you go on a road trip. (But God help you if you get in a car accident because you will have just lost half your house.)

But more ominously, the trailer was the University of Texas’ means of advertising a threat. On the bumper of their trailer was a sticker that read, “I Use Solar Energy and I Vote.” I interpreted that as to say that these engineers and architects are not willing to wait for the marketplace to embrace their innovations, but instead want to use the power of government to compel people to accept their ideas, practical or not.

The idea that improving the livability of human homes requires political coercion is repellent and serves as yet another indictment of the environmentalism movement. As I stood in line to tour the houses, I lost count of how many times I heard about the grand conspiracy to keep solar power away from consumers, yet I only heard a handful of people point out the blatantly obvious: as long as homes such as the ones put on display cost what they do, to embrace them would make it impossible for most people to own their own homes. For all the claims of technological innovations, I got the feeling that what was ultimately being promoted much was older and more familiar: that its time for people to renounce their lives in the name of sacrifice.


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