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Getting excited about solar design

In their first blog entry of 2011, and in the year they’ll be competing in the US Solar Decathlon competition (the first Kiwi team to ever do so), Victoria University’s First Light team explain why they’re so excited about the development and use of solar technologies in building, and why its benefits extend far beyond simply environmental.

Working on the First Light project has taught us a lot about sustainable energy and, in particular, solar energy. We knew before the project began that being sustainable and using green energy sources was important, but now we know exactly how this can be achieved and we just want to tell people about it!

The sun has the potential to dramatically change the way we generate power. We could generate all of the power we use from the sun without any harmful emissions. But while solar energy is the most abundant energy resource available in New Zealand but as a country, we are not yet making the most of it. We’re hoping our project can help get the message out about the advantages and environmental benefits of solar energy. 

New Zealand has around 2000 hours of bright sunshine per year (which is a lot) and has good solar radiation levels. Cold and dark Invercargill has the lowest solar radiation levels in the country, but these numbers are about the same as the levels in Germany, where solar energy is commonly used in households. Europe is currently way ahead of us in the solar power race and we’d like to catch up, or at least compete! 

There are two ways to harness solar power: solar hot water and solar photovoltaic. We will be using both of these systems in the First Light house to cover all of its energy needs. While we wished all houses could be powered by the sun, we do realise the cost of setting up a solar array is currently off-putting. Right now installing a solar hot water system is the most affordable way to capture solar energy.

First Light's solar array

Around 1.6 percent of Kiwi homes have solar hot water systems installed with around 3400 new systems installed each year. Hot water accounts for a third of residential energy use in NZ so the use of solar hot water technologies could greatly reduce the nation’s energy use. A third of our energy produced by the sun would be a great start!

The other way to capture solar power is by powering your house, or part of it, with photovoltaic panels. The First Light house will be fully powered by polycrystalline solar panels, which take in the sun’s energy and convert it into electricity.

At this stage, the cost of photovoltaic panels in New Zealand is very high compared with the cost in other developed nations. Greater investment in this technology would make it increasingly affordable for the average home owner to power their home with renewable energy. 

The Solar Decathlon 2011 rules state the technology we use has to be commercially available at the time of the competition. This means we will be using an off the shelf solar system which anyone could buy. This ‘restriction’ means that our house will not show what’s available in the future but what we can achieve today. 

There is a general lack of awareness about solar technology and the advantages it can bring—advantages that extend beyond environmental to also include eventual cost benefits.  The Solar Decathlon is largely about getting the information out there so people think of solar power as an option when they go to build or renovate.

Check out more First Light Blogs

Practice makes perfect

New Zealand natives in Washington DC

An actively passive house

What’s in a name? 

A team explosion (of size)

Showcasing Kiwi lifestyle to the world

How do you ship a house from Wellington to Washington?

To refresh your memory on what First Light and the US Solar Decathlon are all about, cast your eyes and ears on this video.