September 24, 2009

2009 UK S.KY Blue solar house
2009 UK S.KY Blue solar house
After more than 18 months of physically and mentally challenging labor, the University of Kentucky's S•KY BLUE solar house is ready to roll. With a caravan of five tractor-trailers, the house will join 19 other university-led teams chosen to be a part of the 2009 U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon in Washington, D.C.

The Solar Decathlon consists of 10 contests centering on all the ways people use energy in their daily lives. Students and faculty from six UK colleges and 16 centers and departments have worked around the clock for weeks putting the final touches on the house, with a goal of making it net-zero. Net-zero means the house will have zero net energy consumption over the course of a year. This is accomplished through integrating solar panels and other smart design elements into the house.

"Our goal is to have a house that's 800 square feet or less that will produce or put back on the electricity grid as much energy as it takes off the grid," said Don Colliver, S•KY BLUE project co-leader and professor in the UK College of Agriculture Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering. "We have three main objectives. The first is to build technical capacity among all the people involved in designing and constructing the house including students, faculty, vendors and sponsors. Secondly, we want to show that solar power will work in the United States and particularly in Kentucky. Thirdly, we want to show that a net-zero home can be attractive, and it can be a place in which people would want to live."

Students have been the driving force in the project that's perhaps one of the most complete and unique hands-on educational experiences around. Gregory Luhan, associate dean for research in the College of Design and architecture team leader for the S•KY BLUE solar house, said that more than 150 students have been involved in the project since it began with a call for ideas in early 2008.

"Since the core of this project centers on integrating leading edge research that is only now starting to be disseminated, the solar house is laying a strong and dynamic foundation for students from the Colleges of Design, Engineering, Agriculture and Communications to work collaboratively on future projects," he said. "Students began working on this house as undergraduates in their specific disciplines, but quickly realized that they had to cross traditional disciplinary lines to solve problems that arose during construction. This project has been an amazing experience for both faculty and students alike where innovation and inventiveness took book knowledge to another level on a daily basis."

"I've had more teachable moments with these students in the past year than I've had in 30 years combined," Colliver said about using the S•KY BLUE solar house as a teaching tool.

Jeffrey KellowJeffrey Kellow, graduate student in the College of Agriculture's Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering began working on the S•KY BLUE team as an undergraduate. He will travel with the house to Washington, D.C. where the team will have 96 hours to assemble the house and ready it for the nearly month-long competition.

"I've learned a lot more than I expected to," he said smiling. "It's been an interesting master's project to work on, because it brings together so many things from my undergraduate and graduate studies. It's exciting to see sensors that I worked on in a lab setting actually implemented in this house and really interacting with the outdoor and interior environment and really controlling things."

Kellow emphasized that he's been able to make a lot of life applications in engineering and design concepts and developed an understanding of the concepts in a way that would not have been possible just sitting and writing a computer code and never seeing it actually control something real. He said it also challenged him to think about the "curb appeal" of a solar-powered house.

"As an engineer, I think sometimes I would probably have come up with a functional design, sort of like putting people in a solar box or something," he said. "But through this project, we've found a way to make that box something that someone would want to spend time in, to live in."

"Being in the field and applying these ideas to their senior capstone and thesis projects have resulted in an exponential and experiential learning process that I can clearly see as forming the basis of their graduate level research," Luhan said.

He said the College of Design has always emphasized hands-on learning experiences at a variety of scales, and all of those projects have led to immediate employment after graduation.

"Students are coming out of their degree program with skill sets that employers are looking for and the confidence to bring their own ideas to approach the market in creative new ways," he said. "With this project, we're already in the top 20, and now the idea is being able to showcase the types of innovative learning experiences and research that is going on every day at UK."

This is the fourth Solar Decathlon, but the first time UK has applied. Just being chosen in the top 20 is quite an accomplishment, but the team plans to do more than just show up. The team can earn recognition in 10 contest areas including architecture, engineering, lighting design, net metering, comfort zone, communications, market viability, appliances, home entertainment and hot water.

Colliver acknowledged that the house could not have been built without the support of several sponsors including a major donation of $250,000 from e.on U.S. A list of all sponsors is available online at http://www.uky.edu/solarhouse/sponsors.html.

After the decathlon, the S•KY BLUE solar house will come back to Kentucky and serve as the City of Lexington's welcome center for the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games TM Colliver said. After the games, the S•KY BLUE house will become a living and learning laboratory for students in the future and also for the people of Kentucky.

The project has spawned other research ideas that both Colliver and Luhan are looking forward to getting underway, but first things first - get the S•KY BLUE solar house to Washington, D. C. safely and show the world Kentucky's ingenuity.

Follow the 2009 Solar Decathlon's progress online at http://www.solardecathlon.org/ and http://www.uky.edu/solarhouse.

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