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Solar-powered spotlight shines on UNC-Charlotte

by Meg Freeman Whalen

June 24, 2013


On June 4 at the Fuquay Solar Farm in Willow Springs, Governor Pat McCrory issued a proclamationt hat named June 2013 “Solar Energy Month” in North Carolina. While solar energy currently makes up less than 1% of the state’s overall energy production, North Carolina is demonstrating a growing commitment to this clean and renewable energy source.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, North Carolina ranked fifth in the U.S. for annual installed solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity in 2012 and is slated to come in at fourth in 2013. Just recently, for example, IKEA announced the completed installation of 4,228 solar panels on the roof of its store in Charlotte. Since 2007, more than $743 million has been invested in North Carolina’s solar industry, creating jobs, development, and infrastructure. Our state is now home to more than 500 solar companies, and nearly 2000 North Carolinians work in the solar industry.

“We’ve seen enormous growth,” says Mike Davis, Charlotte Regional Manager of the NC Sustainable Energy Association. And, he notes, the state legislature has recently demonstrated bi-partisan support for renewable energy technologies, including solar. That and the Governor’s proclamation, says Davis, “sends a very strong signal to the nation, and in fact the entire world” that North Carolina is committed to sustainable energy.

Nowhere is the excitement over solar potential more evident this month than on the campus of UNC Charlotte, where a team of students and faculty is building “UrbanEden,” the university’s entry into the US Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2013. The Solar Decathlon challenges 20 academic teams from around the world to design, build, and operate fully solar-powered homes.  

“The Solar Decathlon is probably the most prestigious and challenging design competition in the United States,” says UNC Charlotte School of Architecture Director Chris Jarrett. “UNC Charlotte’s selection to participate in the Solar Decathlon is an extraordinary opportunity for the university and its partners to be in an international spotlight with respect to issues of renewable energy and solar power.”

UrbanEden is inspired by Charlotte’s commitment to revitalizing its urban center. Envisioned as an urban-infill project, UrbanEden’s design begins with an ancient urban material, expertly modified to become an eco-friendly, innovative building material: pre-cast geopolymer cement concrete. The subject of more than five years of research led by Brett Tempest, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at UNC Charlotte, geopolymer cement concrete replaces the Portland cement binder in conventional concrete with fly-ash, a by-product of coal production, resulting in a 90% reduction in carbon footprint.

UrbanEden consists of four integrated interior modules, each with a corresponding exterior component. The series of connected indoor and outdoor rooms, separated by a high-performance glass wall, creates a versatile environment that can be adapted to meet multiple uses, thus allowing the 800-square foot home to feel big. Other innovations include a passive cooling and heating system composed of water-filled tubes embedded in the concrete walls and responsive technology that allows the house and its inhabitants to adapt to changing environmental conditions.

UrbanEden is powered by a 9.4kW array of photovoltaic panels, but the panels serve another purpose, as well. The house’s final key innovation is the track system above the roof that allows the PV panels to slide back and forth over the house. In the summer, the solar panels can be moved out over the deck to provide shading to both the exterior rooms and to the south-facing glass wall. In the winter, the panels can be retracted to allow the sun to passively heat and light the home through the glass wall.

Designing and building a net-zero energy solar house is a complex, multidisciplinary project, involving students and faculty from the School of Architecture, the William S. Lee College of Engineering, and the Belk College of Business.

“It’s been such an inspiration to me to be around these college students,” says Davis, who serves on the UNC Charlotte Solar Decathlon Steering Committee. “They have such a bright vision. It’s been energizing.”

The team will complete UrbanEden in August, then dismantle the house and transport it to Irvine, California, where the competition takes place Oct. 3-13.

“UNC Charlotte’s participation in the Solar Decathlon is a very visible and real example of North Carolina’s commitment to sustainable energy,” Davis says. “We’re very proud for UNC Charlotte to represent our state.” 

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Tags: solar power, solar energy, UNC-Charlotte, Charlotte, decathlon, Department of Energy

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