Building for forever

Solar panels

Courtesy Wayne National Forest

Electricity-producing solar panels, or photovoltaic panels, can be fitted to existing structures. When the panels produce more electricity that the building is currently using, the extra power is fed back into the electrical grid. In may places, the power company purchases the electricity from the owner of the panels.

ICON home

Courtesy afagen via flickr.com

The University of Minnesota's entry to the "Solar Decathlon" competition does all the things a normal house does, but it produces more electricity than it consumes.

Everyone deserves safe, comfortable places to live and work, but our homes, businesses and factories require lots of resources, and place strain on the environment. The solution to these problems isn’t to simply give up our comforts and safety—people will only do what they want to do, and they wouldn’t want to do that — but to design our homes and buildings so that they do the same things while using less.

By researching solar power and efficient building technologies, IonE and the University of Minnesota are creating designs for sustainable homes that actually produce more energy than they use. The University's ICON solar home, an award-winning submission to the Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon competition, showcases some of the strategies and technologies that make this possible. Careful insulation, low-energy appliances and solar thermal and photovoltaic panels allow the two-person home to generate 13 months of electricity over the course of a year. At night, or during particularly cloudy days, the ICON home will draw electricity from the power grid, but it will feed extra energy back into the grid when the solar panels are exposed to the sun.

Prototype houses like ICON take lots of time and money to design and build, but they will become much cheaper as their designs are reproduced. And the technology they use, like solar panels and high R-value insulation, can be integrated into existing structures. Changing what people around the world expect from their buildings is a daunting task, but research that makes the change more practical and the materials more affordable is an important step to reducing the impact our structures have on the planet.