It’s finally here! The 2011 US Solar Decathlon has kicked off with an opening ceremony on the National Mall’s West Potomac Park in Washington, DC, with over 4,000 college students in attendance to show off the solar-powered, highly efficient and innovatively-designed houses that have been two years in the making. This year, the Decathlon features contestants from five countries, including Belgium, Canada, China and New Zealand, as well as the US. For 10 days, they’ll participate in 10 separate contests that gauge different aspects of each house. This year’s Decathlon features a new contest, one that focuses on affordability of the houses. The winner of the Solar Decathlon will have an ideal blend of affordability, sustainability and efficiency, and design.

To even get into the Decathlon, universities had to go through a competitive process back in 2009. They then had two years to design, research and build their homes. Each team tailored their house to a specific climate, region and market, creating easy-to-construct modular homes for victims of natural disasters, safe and accessible homes for retirees, comfortable housing in densely populated cities, and affordable homes for low-income families. Houses also tended to focus on specific practices besides solar power, such as water conservation and home-grown produce. Besides being a way to educate themselves and the public about conserving energy and resources while saving money, participating students also gather valuable experience that prepares them for the engineering, design and architecture fields.

image via U.S. Department of Energy

The houses will be on public display for free from Friday, September 23 through Sunday, October 2, 10 am to 5:30 pm on weekends, and 10 to 2 on weekdays. Visitors are encouraged to tour the houses, and it is hoped that some of the energy-saving, sustainable practices and technologies used in the houses will inspire people to make energy-conscious choices in their own homes. The winner of the Decathlon will be announced on Saturday, October 1. If you’re in the DC area, check it out.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu hopes that competitions like the Solar Decathlon will help boost the US’s future workforce and help the country maintain its position in the global economy and energy industries. “The Solar Decathlon collegiate teams are showing how clean energy products and efficient building design can help families and businesses reduce energy use and save money,” he said. “The event challenges talented students to become pioneers of clean energy technology and helps ensure that our nation remains competitive in the workforce of tomorrow.”

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