Architecture Students Go Solar

  • The University of Maryland's solar powered house, designed to resemble the path of the sun across the sky, contrasts with the older architecture of the Smithsonian Museum. (Photo by Stefano Paltera/Solar Decathlon)

18 teams from around the world are competing this week
in a solar home competition in Washington, D.C. Each team competes
to see who can build the most aesthetic and livable solar home.
The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jennifer Guerra reports:


Eighteen teams from around the world are competing this week in a solar home
competition in Washington, D.C. Each team competes to see who can build the
most aesthetic and livable solar home. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Jennifer Guerra reports:

Richard King is the director of the Solar Decathlon
Competition in the nation’s capital. We called him on his cell phone as he
was wandering around the National Mall checking out the different houses.
We asked him why he thought solar homes have a future in the housing market.

“You see gas prices are going up, natural gas prices are going up. We call
that volatility in the supply market. Solar energy doesn’t have that. Yes,
you have to buy a collector that you put on your house, but from then, on for the
next twenty years, you don’t have to worry about the price of energy going up
because the sunlight is free.”

Free and limitless, as King points out, and the houses being put up on
the mall try to show how they take advantage of that energy and still look
like something you’d want to live in. As King wandered around the solar
village, he stopped at the University of Michigan’s house.

“Michigan just got their end caps on, and now we finally see what it looks
like. We were all wondering what they had up their sleeve, so it’s pretty

Before the University of Michigan team shipped their house to D.C., we
dropped by the School of Architecture. They were just putting the finishing
touches on their entry.

(Sound of talking)

That’s John Beeson, the project manager of the Michigan Solar House
project. It’s called Mi-So for short. They had to be creative to make sure
their entry was dependent on the sun for energy.

“This is a solar contest, so we are very limited in terms of what we can do for energy production. We can’t even convert kinetic energy, somebody bouncing on something, into electrical energy. We’re very limited.”

The house has to be totally off the grid, which means lots of large
batteries and thin, photovoltaic panels, neither of which make for an
aesthetically pleasing house. And in the world of architecture, if it doesn’t look good from the outside, no one’s going to care if its energy efficient.

“Most consumers today aren’t gonna buy something just because it’s sustainable.”

Lee Devore is the Michigan team’s operations manager.

“But if you have two apples, and they’re identical, and their cost is
roughly the same, if one is more sustainable than the other, it’s that extra
thing, but the thing they’re really concerned about is that it’s still a beautiful
thing to possess.”

Back on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., Solar Decathlon
Competition director Richard King says in this contest, beauty’s as
important as sustainability.

“In the 70’s, we just stuck solar collectors on the roofs in all kinds of
directions and one of the barriers are a lot of people didn’t like that up there on
their roof. So we’ve employed these schools of architecture to design very
beautiful-looking buildings with solar integrated in to actually
prove that solar energy works.”

So to make Michigan’s solar house stand out as the belle at the D.C.
National Mall, John Beeson says the team turned to Michgan’s most noted
industry, the automakers, for tips.

BEESON: “People like taking their cars and tricking them out, and the house is the same thing, you
just don’t know you’re doing it, every time you move into it. So why not make the architecture built that way, so that people can change it and affect it the way they want. So for us, there would just be panelized construction. We would just put these panels up, I’m done with this sink, this mirror combination. I’m gonna take it down and sell it on Ebay.”

GUERRA: “Are people ready for this?”

BEESON: “We hope. If not, it’ll be a good exploratory example of it on the
National Mall for people to go see.”

Even after a winning team’s been picked, the challenges aren’t over. It’s one thing to build a solar prototype for the competition, it’s another to
take that prototype and turn it into homebuilding that can be mass-produced
for less waste and lower costs. Once that happens, we might just see solar
homes popping up in new neighborhoods.

For the GLRC, I’m Jennifer Guerra.

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Harvesting the Wind (Part 1)

  • Wind turbines can be both a blessing for farmers, as a source of extra income... and annoying to the neighbors. (Photo by Lester Graham)

Wind farms of huge turbines are springing up along coastlines,
windy ridges and blustery farmland. Most of us see them from a distance.
The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris Lehman recently visited some
of them up close… and has the first of two reports on wind energy:


Wind farms of huge turbines are springing up along coast lines, windy ridges and
farmland. Most of us see them from a distance. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Lehman recently visited some of them up close… and has the first of two reports on
wind energy…

If you can imagine the sight… there are 63 wind turbines scattered across the
prairie farmland,
their huge blades sweeping around, capturing energy from the wind. Each turbine is
213 feet
high. You can see them from miles around. But it isn’t until you stand directly
underneath the
80-foot long blades as they rotate in the wind that you begin to appreciate their size…

(sound of wind from underneath turbine)

“This is probably a typical day. They’re probably producing at about 30 percent of
what they are
rated at, and probably on average, for a year, this is what you’d expect.”

Christopher Moore is Director of Development for Navitas Energy. The Minnesota- based
company opened the Mendota Hills Wind Farm in northern Illinois just over a year ago.

Q: “What are some of the highest levels that you’ve reached?”

“Each turbine is capable of producing 800 kw, and there are times when we’ve had the
working at about maximum.”

Moore says the Mendota Hills Wind Farm produces enough electricity to power about 15-
thousand homes per year. It’s the first wind farm in the state of Illinois.

Brian Lammers is a Project Manager for Navitas Energy. He says the location is
ideal since it’s
windy here nearly all year long…

“The wind here is more robust in the fall, winter and spring. So we have more
production during
those months than we do during June, July, August.”

Unfortunately, the summer months are the months that most often experience peak
demand for
electricity. Because of that, and because it takes so many windmills to generate
lower amounts of
power, it’s unlikely that current wind energy will completely replace fossil fuel
generated power.

(sound of turbines)

On the flat prairies of Illinois, the giant turbines are the tallest structures for
miles around. You
begin to wonder about things like lightning strikes…

“We might have experienced one or two last year. The turbines are protected from
lightning. The
entire wind farm is grounded, so if there is a strike typically it will just be
grounded down to the
ground grid. There’s typically no long-term damage associated with a lightning
strike. But as you
can imagine, they’re the tallest structures around so there are periodic lightning

Q “What about a tornado? This is tornado country…what would happen if one came

“I don’t know. These turbines are built to withstand everything but a direct strike
from a tornado,
so I think the same thing would happen to a wind turbine that would happen to any
structure if they were struck by a tornado. You’d probably have some significant

(fade up sound inside turbine)

Inside the turbine, there’s a distinct hum as the blades whirl away at the top of
the hollow shaft.
It’s about ten feet across at the base, and a metal ladder allows anyone brave
enough to climb all
the way to the top.

Despite the hum of the turbine’s blades up close, the sound fades away just a few
dozen feet from
the tower. But noise isn’t much of a concern for this wind farm. It’s in the
middle of a soybean
field and there are no neighbors nearby.

Noise is just one of the aesthetic concerns for neighbors of wind farms. Appearance
is another.
The Mendota Hills turbines are coated with a special paint that appears white in
bright sunshine.
But when the sun’s not out, the turbines appear grey, and seem to blend in with the

Dennis Cradduck has 19 of the turbines on his corn and soybean farm. He says the
wind farm
hasn’t been a problem. Of course, he’s getting paid by Navitas for allowing the
turbines on his
land. But he says the wind farm has led to an unexpected benefit: getting to meet
people from
across the country who pull off the highway for a closer look…

“We get people almost on a daily basis that drive by on the interstate and see them,
and stop and
want to look at them, and they’re amazed at them, and most—about 99 percent of them
have been
positive comments. In fact, one fellow from North Carolina stopped the other day
and said ‘I wish
we’d build more of these around the country because we need renewable energy.'”

The prospect of more renewable energy is appealing to most environmentalists. But
some worry
that wind farms can be deadly to birds. A study by the National Wind Coordinating
found that wind turbines kill an average of two birds per year.

Another concern is that windmills disrupt the scenery. But the only view around
here is farmland
as far as the eye can see. And on this brisk day, it isn’t just corn and soybeans
being harvested: it’s
the power of wind.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Chris Lehman.

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