Nestled high up on a mountaintop outside of Fort Davis, TX is where the solar powered BLOOMhouse now resides. The BLOOMhouse was one of the entries in the biennial Solar Decathlon that was held in Washington D.C. last year to demonstrate the power of the sun to our governing bodies and public. The competition challenges 20 universities from around the world to design and build the most attractive and energy-efficient dwelling.
The BLOOMhouse is now a part of the MacDonald Observatory complex, a world class and world renown astronomical facility in the highlands of Far West Texas far from city lights or pollution. While the astronomers at the facility observe the details of our sun and distant suns, Sam Covey and Hap Pfeil are revisiting their school project to observe the Sun's capacity to keep their house "alive."
I met Sam and Hap at the Living With Nature Festival in Marathon, TX where they gave a presentation about the project. They invited me to see it.
Hap describes the BLOOMhouse as the 'muscle car' of solar houses, meaning that the solar energy being harvested and stored is far more than what the house actually needs. During the competition, all of the excess power was used to test its functionality as well as power an electric vehicle, but now the large solar array will be used to power a nearby dwelling at the observatory as well as the BLOOMhouse. I was fortunate to spend a sunset and a sunrise at the BLOOMhouse to see for myself.
When we arrived, Sam pointed out that the batteries were way overcharged. Even though the state-of-the-art inverters are set up to divert the excess energy to the three hot water heaters and outdoor Dutch Tub (which can hold five people by the way), there was still too much charge in the batteries. Our job was to waste as much energy as we could to bring the energy stored in the battery bank back down to a safe level. We left the doors open, while we used the AC, the microwave, the full size freezer/refrigerator, the convection counter stove and oven, and we also had music playing through the giant plasma flatscreen TV for hours. Hap even let the on-demand water heater run for an hour to heat the Dutch Tub.
By morning, we were able to bring the energy storage to just above its ideal limit capacity. But by then, the sun was beginning to rise again and restart the cycle. Once the sun gets through its morning stretching routine, the up to 5 KILOwatts the panels gather, prevents any appliances from accessing the battery bank. At that point, all the power comes directly from the panels. Even the most wasteful occupant couldn't use more than the energy the panels can capture. Did I mention the plug in electric cart outside? It doesn't put a dent in the system.
Because of the surplus of energy created from the solar panels, which cover no more space than the roof of this 550square foot house, it was decided that they will hook the neighboring house up to theirs as well as maybe one other orbiting structure to help balance things out. This is the best immediate solution, being that the grid out here in this remote region isn't set up for uploading yet.
Following is a short interview with Sam Covey, who was part of the student team who engineered, built, and installed the BLOOMhouse.
TreeHugger: This house was designed for a very specific project assignment that called for a solar only house. When you eventually buy, or rather, design and build a house of your own, what will it be like? How will it be powered, etc?
Sam Covery: Part of the goal of this project was not only to show people the new innovative technologies, but also to change the public's mind on housing. Putting aside all the cool gadgets we employed, the best and simplest way to reduce your energy load is to reduce your household footprint . The less space you have, the less lighting, heating, and cooling-the major energy requirements of a household-are needed. We designed a simple 550 sq.ft. dwelling demonstrating that very little space is needed for couple or single inhabitant. We created a huge open deck outside, expanding the exterior into an outdoor living room, but still keeping the interior conditioned space to a minimum. But back to the question, I would most likely build a simple small house that has high quality windows and insulation, large outdoor spaces and shading, and energy-efficient appliance. The real trick to energy saving is not cutting-edge technology, but simply reducing the demand for electricity.
TH: Why don't we see more solar houses like this one in our neighborhoods?
SC: There are a few reason why solar isn't popping up everywhere. First, the reason everyone knows, the economics of solar create a long pay back period. The city of Austin has rebate program and incentives, so I have seen more solar installations here, but still the upfront cost is prohibitive. There needs to be more inclusive incentives and encouragement to get the public to embrace these new ideas. Second, not all locations are cut out for solar. Many places are full of trees, and shading the house saves lots on cooling costs in the summer. In the future I am interested to see if a community based approach to energy production will take root. Neighborhoods could cooperatively pool resources and place panels on the houses or structures in the sunny spots, while other house in shaded spots could share the power source.
TH: In your presentation, you mentioned that $300,000 worth of materials were donated for this project. How much do you think it would cost for someone to build a more practical, non-muscle version of this house, or in other words, a solar powered house that meets the needs of the residents and not much more?
SC: Actually one part of the ten competitions in the Solar Decathlon is dedicated to this question. We were not only required to design and build the cutting-edge prototype house for the competition, but also design a more economical version that would be available to a typical American. Our house does carry a hefty price tag, but after you cut out the designer cabinets and other high-end finishes, cut the solar array by a third, and remove the battery bank along with a few other cost cutting ideas; this simple, energy-efficient house is much more attainable. One of the major cost saving items was to create a mass produced version. Since the BLOOMhouse is already designed on a mobile home chassis, probably making it the most technologically advanced and energy-efficient single-wide in Texas, we wanted to make the economical one a mobile home as well. By building it in a factory, the costs were cut drastically, and the houses would be ready to be shipped anywhere. After the concept house was scaled back and the economies of scale of manufacturing were applied, we reduced the price of the house to just under $120,000, making it very affordable. We also included plans to create a "double-wides" where two segments link together forming a large family household.