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Brad Petersen
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1066 ECE Building
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Urbana, IL 61801
Phone: (217) 244-6376
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Urbana, IL 61801
Phone: (217) 300-6664
megd@illinois.edu

Illinois students to compete in national Solar Decathlon

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By By Lauren Eichmann, ECE Illinois
September 12, 2007

  • ECE grad and undergrad students selected as part of Illinois' 2007 Solar Decathlon team which will compete in Washington D.C.
  • The biennial competition pits 20 university teams from North America and Europe against each other to build and manage homes powered by solar energy.
  • This is Illinois first appearance in the Solar Decathlon. Schools are awarded $100,000 in seed money to begin the project, with all other funds being raised by the individual teams.

ECE undergraduate and graduate students are part of a University of Illinois team selected by the Department of Energy to participate in the 2007 Solar Decathlon in Washington, D.C., for eight days starting October 12. The biennial competition challenges 20 college and university teams from the U.S., Canada, and Europe to build and manage homes powered by solar energy.

A few of the more than 100 students participating in the Solar Decathlon event for Illinois will travel to Washington to reconstruct the house and perform the required duties to demonstrate the home’s operability such as driving an electric car, cooking and preparing meals, and giving tours to the public.

University of Illinois team leaders, standing, left to right: faculty adviser Ty Newell, Luis Martinez, ECE grad student Trishan Esram, Donna Murray Tiedge, Brigid Johnson, Bob Kinsey, Nora Wang, Jason Wheeler, and Ben Barnes. Kneeling, left to right: Susan McKenna and faculty adviser Mike McCulley. Photo courtesy of Susan McKenna/College of Communications.
University of Illinois team leaders, standing, left to right: faculty adviser Ty Newell, Luis Martinez, ECE grad student Trishan Esram, Donna Murray Tiedge, Brigid Johnson, Bob Kinsey, Nora Wang, Jason Wheeler, and Ben Barnes. Kneeling, left to right: Susan McKenna and faculty adviser Mike McCulley. Photo courtesy of Susan McKenna/College of Communications.

Each self-sustaining home, which will be moved to the National Mall in late September, must provide enough electricity to light, heat, and cool the house to maintain a designated temperature range, as well as provide hot running water and operate any electronics or appliances. Teams must also be able to power a commercially available electric car supplied by the competition.

Although this will be the third Solar Decathlon, Illinois is participating for the first time. After reviewing the school proposals, 20 competitors were awarded $100,000 in seed money by the Department of Energy to begin the project, with teams raising all other necessary funds on their own.

ECE Associate Professor Patrick Chapman, who has served as a student advisor for much of the project that began in early 2006, said there is a certain amount of overwork for the students. Many are simply volunteers who work on the house, he said, although some do receive credit through courses such as Engineering 491: Interdisciplinary Design.

"[The Solar Decathlon house is] not like a regular homework assignment where if you get 90 percent you get an A," said Chapman. "It has to be 100 percent right or it's not going to work at all. And there’s a lot of pride at stake going to this national competition."

Trishan Esram, ECE graduate student and electrical engineering team leader, said one of the biggest challenges is working together with a diverse group of people. "We all have different ways of thinking," he said. "It is not easy."

Patrick Lyle Chapman
Patrick Lyle Chapman

Chapman agreed. "A lot of discussion went into explaining our problems to each other," he said. "The architects want to design [the house] without any solar panels at all, while [the electrical engineers] want the whole thing to be covered with them."

For Sean Safavinejad, who graduated with an ECE degree in May and has worked on the electrical layout of the house, the Solar Decathlon has been a positive opportunity to work with a group of people from various technical backgrounds. "This is an experience that has helped me a lot with my current internship [at Midwest ISO] and the job environment," he said.

Esram said his duty in the project is to oversee the electrical system of the house, specifically working to achieve the maximum power point of the solar panels. The two parts of the electrical system of the house consist of alternating currents (AC), which are typically found in most homes and businesses, and direct currents (DC), which all solar cells produce. DC power provides a constant flow of electric charge, of which few electricians have knowledge, said Esram, who noted this was an obstacle during the process.

Chapman said the electrical engineering component of the house involved "everything from as simple as basic household wiring, to how to specify, select and configure solar panels, and then picking out the power electronics that are used to manage those modules to interact with the power grid of the house."

He said they also consulted with the mechanical engineering group. "We really had to work with them to figure out how much of an electrical load there was - refrigeration, heating, venting, and air conditioning - and work with them on how to reduce that load or how to run electronics and appliances at different times to get the maximum use out of the energy we were producing from the solar panels," he said.

Ultimately the different design aspects must be cohesive enough to meet the standards of the competition. Competitors will face a weeklong series of 10 contests judging each model’s architectural design and market viability, energy production and efficiency, livability, and incorporation of the solar energy into the operation of the home.

Many members of Illinois’ team said they think the modular design will give them an advantage in the competition. "We can add as many rooms as needed to fit the family just right," said Andy Friedl, former research assistant in the ECE Power Electronics Lab and a May ECE graduate. "It is also very easy to just add on additional rooms, which is a very useful feature."

The Illinois Solar Decathlon house under construction at the corner of Lincoln Ave. and St. Mary’s Road. The Illinois team will face off against other university teams starting October 12 in Washington, DC. Photo courtesy of Susan McKenna/ College of Communications.
The Illinois Solar Decathlon house under construction at the corner of Lincoln Ave. and St. Mary’s Road. The Illinois team will face off against other university teams starting October 12 in Washington, DC. Photo courtesy of Susan McKenna/ College of Communications.

Unloading and re-constructing the house will not require any power equipment. Students will use levers and human power, said Chapman, who said he feels this simply reinforces the spirit of the competition and will hopefully make an impression upon the judges.

Each team will have one week to build the house and one week to compete. Yet despite the week allowance, Esram said he thinks Illinois can construct the house in two days, leaving the rest of the week open for additional testing.

"Some teams have competed twice already, and know how to overcome problems they’ve had to deal with in the past," said Esram. "But we are hoping to be one of the best teams there. We do have a really strong house."

The University of Colorado, Denver and Boulder, has won the competition the last two years it was held. "Our chances of winning (the competition) are above average," said Chapman. "While Colorado has a tremendous head-start, we have a very comprehensive design that is well-funded and diverse in its ability."

Chapman said Illinois’ Solar Decathlon house could potentially be used as a laboratory after the contest so students could assess solar power energy systems in a realistic environment rather than simply a lab bench.

The house currently sits at the corner of Lincoln Avenue and St. Mary’s Road in Urbana, where it was moved from its original location in a warehouse at Oak and Armory.

For more information about the competition, visit www.solardecathlon.org. For more information about the Illinois team, visit www.solardecathlon.illinois.edu.

Drawings used in homepage graphic courtesy of Nora Na Wang and Joe Simon.

Editor's note: media inquiries should be directed to Brad Petersen, Director of Communications, at bradp@illinois.edu or (217) 244-6376.

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