Flip a light switch, turn on the TV or open the refrigerator you probably don't think twice about the electricity powering your home.
A team of UT Austin students, on the other hand, has spent two years imagining how to power our homes and keep our day-to-day lives running on light from the sun. They're building a solar-powered house this spring, which they'll ship to California for the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon competition in October.
The UT team, partnering with the Technische Universität München (TUM) in Germany, was one of 20 selected for the competition out of more than 150 teams that applied. Judges will score 10 different contests as part of the competition, from architecture and engineering to the performance of home appliances, affordability and how well the teams market and promote the solar-powered homes.
Dubbed "Nexushaus," the UT Solar Decathlon team's solar home aims to address broad sustainability and affordability issues while also focusing on key issues facing Austin. Keeping the city's expanding population in mind, the team designed a prototype for secondary dwellings that could provide additional housing on more than 42,000 lots in the Austin metro area, explains Jessica Janzen, an architecture graduate student competing on the Solar Decathlon team.
Between UT and TUM, more than 60 students are working to design, fund and construct the solar-powered home.
Bringing an array of specialties to the project, the UT students come from six different schools: Cockrell School of Engineering, McCombs School of Business, LBJ School of Public Affairs, Jackson School of Geosciences, Moody College of Communication and the School of Architecture.
Earlier this month, the team submitted to the Department of Energy 500 pages of drawings and detailed documents showing nearly finalized plans for the house. The students have detailed plans for everything from how the house can be integrated into existing neighborhoods to water-collection systems that will irrigate an all-food-growing landscape.
The team's solar-powered home includes two 400-square-foot modules and a central connector. One module serves as a living unit with kitchen and dining space, and the second contains a full bathroom and two bedrooms. The structure also doubles as a chassis, allowing each module to be trucked to the competition site intact.
"The two modules are connected through a central nexus where we demonstrate the potential for integrated energy and water systems that make the house a unit of production, rather than one of consumption," Janzen says.
The two-year process of designing, building and operating a solar-powered home that's also cost-effective, energy-efficient and attractive comes with a price tag. In all, the team needs to raise $500,000 in cash and in-kind donations to fund the project.
The Department of Energy kick-started each team with $50,000, and the students in Germany have raised more than $15,000. The UT students, meanwhile, have already raised $100,000, including a $10,000 matching donation from Austin Energy and more than $21,000 from the university's new crowd funding platform, HornRaiser.
[Want to help the team compete? Donate to The University of Texas at Austin and Technische Universität München's 2015 Solar Decathlon Team.]
The 2015 Solar Decathlon marks the fourth time UT has been selected to compete, with the most recent UT team competing in 2007. This year, UT is the only Texas university represented in the competition.
Here Comes the Sun: Forty Acres Filled with Solar Research
While the Solar Decathlon team is busy building the home of the future, researchers and students across the Forty Acres are working on other solar-related projects. Here's a quick look at some of the solar projects powered by Longhorns:
- In 2009, the U.S. Department of Energy awarded UT two $15 million grants to establish two Energy Frontier Research Centers, one of which focuses on better understanding the molecular processes that underpin innovative nanomaterials that may be used in solar energy and batteries.
- Researchers in the Chemical Engineering Department are using nanotechnology to try to improve the efficiency of solar panels.
- In 2014, the students on the University of Texas Solar Vehicles Team competed in two back-to-back national competitions for the first time: The Formula Sun Grand Prix and the American Solar Challenge, both hosted by UT's Cockrell School of Engineering.
- One of the largest in Austin, the solar-power system at UT's J.J. Pickle Research Campus can produce 400,000 kilowatt hours of renewable energy each year, or enough annual power for 40 average homes.
- In 2013, Varun Rai, assistant professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, received a major grant from the U.S. Department of Energy's SunShot Initiative to explore policies that could speed the adoption of solar energy use.
- Students needing a power boost for laptops, cell phones and even electric bikes while walking between classes can charge devices at two solar-powered charging stations on campus.
- John Goodenough, a professor in mechanical engineering and electrical and computer engineering, is working to improve the lithium-ion battery he helped invent so that energy from solar farms may be stored and used in more cost-competitive ways.
- Arumugam Manthiram, director of the Texas Materials Institute, leads researchers in the Manthiram Laboratory to design and develop low-cost, efficient materials leading to the next general of clean energy technologies such as solar cells.
- Allen Bard, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and director of the Center for Electrochemistry, is working to create a special way to split water into hydrogen and oxygen atoms using sunlight so that the hydrogen may be captured and used as fuel.
This story is part of our "Finding Solutions" series, which explores how UT Austin faculty, staff and students are putting their big ideas to work.