They're as close as a Super Bowl victory
MONTEVIDEO -- Winter-weary Minnesotans tend to approach solar power the way they do the prospects of a Super Bowl victory for the Vikings: Hopeful, but always prepared for cloudy days and disappointment.
Dan Handeen has proof it can happen.
Sun power, that is. Handeen, a 1992 graduate of Montevideo High School, served as assistant project manger for the University of Minnesota's Solar Decathlon competition. The University's "solar icon'' house won fifth-place honors in the U.S. Department or Energy's 2009 competition last October in Washington, D.C.
Twenty teams built "zero energy'' homes for the competition, with a German team taking the first-place award.
The homes could use power from the grid on cloudy days, but the goal was to demonstrate a net gain of producing more solar power than taken from the grid.
The University's house proved it could, and without sacrifice, said Handeen, who has a master's degree in architecture from the University of Minnesota. He told a Montevideo audience that the U of M focused on developing a structure that was truly home-like, comfortable and marketable in the real world.
Its "icon house'' moniker spoke to the goal. The design is a modified version of the traditional, gable house style we know so well.
The U of M had a $1.2 million budget for the project and invested more than $750,000 in the structure. "Not an affordable housing model by any means,'' laughed Handeen.
But the upfront investment belies the fact this prototype could lead to affordable copies, and that the gee-whiz technology it utilizes is ready for the market. "We're right there,'' said Handeen of the solar technology the house employed. "It's coming out and it's coming out quick.''
Like other houses in the competition, the U of M house relied on an array of rooftop solar panels to produce electricity and heat.
But it also used two-sided solar panels to shade a deck area while converting both direct and ambient light into electricity. Inside, the Minnesota house captured attention for its electro-chromatic windows produced by Sage Glass of Faribault. With the turn of a switch, a tiny electrical current can tint the widows to reduce solar gain by as much as 60 percent and help keep the house cool on sunny, summer days.
An undergraduate student's invention also made the house unique. A desiccant dehumidifier uses common road salt to remove the humidity from summer air and as a result, greatly reduce the electricity needed to cool it down.
Only the most energy efficient devices were allowed inside. Fourth-generation LED lights, and a large LED TV that needed only 30 watts of electricity, were among them.
An electric induction stove did the cooking: Electromagnetic waves cause the steel and cast iron pots to heat, greatly reducing the electricity required while offering the same heating precision and speed as that of natural gas stoves.
Competition rules limited the size of the house to no more than 800 square feet. The Minnesota version had 550 square feet of open, interior space with an attached deck. Rubber bladders hidden underneath the deck held rain water for use in irrigating.
Handeen fielded lots of questions about the cutting edge technology in the home at his presentation, but the most important question also admittedly proved the most anti-climactic. Asked what technology was most feasible to incorporate into our existing homes, Handeen replied: Insulate and Infiltrate.
Adding insulation to wall and roofs and making sure windows, doors and roof and wall lines are air tight "are by far the best things you can do,'' he said.
For a virtual tour of the icon house and learn more, on the web: http://www.solardecathlon.umn.edu/