Image: Solar homes being built in DC
Stefano Paltera  /  U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon
Collegiate teams build their solar village at West Potomac Park in Washington, D.C., on Monday. Arlington, Va., is in the background at left.
updated 9/22/2011 6:38:10 PM ET 2011-09-22T22:38:10

Hundreds of college students from around the U.S., and even a handful of other countries, have been busy this week building a village of solar-powered homes on a park at the nation's capital.

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The timing could have been better: The contest comes as Republicans grill the administration over its awarding of a $528 million loan guarantee to a solar panel company that has since filed for bankruptcy.

The village and the grilling reflect the state of a technology first touted in the 1970s. Solar panels have gotten cheaper and more efficient, creating a new generation of visionaries, but companies are still seeking federal help given competition from China, which subsidizes its industry, and the fact that solar is still more expensive than fossil fuels.

One such company was Solyndra, which was the first to receive loan guarantee funding under the Obama administration's alternative energy loan program, but filed for bankruptcy last month and now is the target of an FBI investigation.

Story: GOP lawmaker: Solar panel industry could fail

President Barack Obama even visited Solyndra's California plant last year to showcase it as a model of how the government could kick-start job growth in clean energy.

Republicans have since uncovered e-mails showing concerns about the company's finances dating back before the loans were made.

Other emails suggested decisions might have been rushed to accommodate the schedules of administration officials who wanted to promote them.

Image: Solar panels installed on home
Stefano Paltera  /  US Dept. of Energy Solar Decathlon
A student from Canada helps install the solar panels at the Team Canada house on Monday.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a hearing on Friday with Solyndra executives, who have said through their attorneys that they will invoke their Fifth Amendment rights to avoid self-incrimination and will not answer questions.

Story: Solyndra execs to plead 5th at House hearing

The Obama administration insists it will continue pushing for solar and other renewable energy.

"It's not going to be a perfect path where every project proposed is going to be built toward completion," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Wednesday, comparing the Solyndra failure and other high-profile bankruptcies to "dry holes" encountered by early oil and gas explorers.

Story: Salazar says solar push to continue

"Those who believe we should turn the clock back" and stop renewable energy subsidies are ceding leadership to China and other countries, he said. "They are accepting a second-place or third-place role for the United States. That's not what the president is about and it's not what the Department of Interior is about."

Back at West Potomac Park on the National Mall, the students have been working long days to pass building inspections and then compete in 10 events over 10 days. The categories include market appeal, energy balance and, new this year, affordability — the goal being to build homes costing $250,000 or less.

Image: Interior of solar powered home
Stefano Paltera  /  US Dept. of Energy Solar Decathlon
Jacqueline Stewart of Appalachian State University on Wednesday explains the importance of bifacial solar panels, top, at her team's home while distributing foldable hats that double as a brochure. The panels act as a roof while also allowing light in.

The teams — which include universities in China, Belgium, Canada and New Zealand — have to live, cook and clean in the tiny homes (1,000 square feet or less, the rules say) to test their energy efficiency.

Besides solar panels, some of the homes have walls filled with material to store heat throughout the day and release it at night. Others have bioremediation beds to clean rainwater collected from rooftops.

The village isn't permanent. Once winners are chosen next week in the energy-efficiency contest sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, the village will be dismantled.

One of the 19 homes will stay behind, however. Dubbed Empowerhouse, it is a partnership with Habitat for Humanity and will be used at a low-income Habitat community in Washington, D.C.

Like the other contest homes, Empowerhouse gets all its electricity from solar panels on the roof. It also aims to use 90 percent less energy than a typical home by deploying technologies like sensors that turn fluorescent and LED lights on and off depending on whether anyone is there.

"Energy efficient design results in healthier, more economically viable housing for the low-income families we serve," Kent Adcock, head of Habitat for Humanity's local chief, said in a statement. "When design ingredients like those of the Empowerhouse reduce energy consumption by up to 90 percent, it's a substantial savings to homeowners, possibly the difference between having access to childcare or healthcare, or even advancing their education."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Solyndra execs face Congress grilling

  1. Closed captioning of: Solyndra execs face Congress grilling

    >> top executives from a now bankrupt solar energy company were given half a billion in taxpayer loans by the obama administration are appearing at a congressional hearing this morning but they are pleading the 5th. lisa myers is in san antonio with the latest on this. good morning.

    >> reporter: good morning, matt. this company was the poster child for the president's green jobs initiative. images of its executives taking the 5th today are not the optic it is white house had hoped for. taxpayers now stand to lose as much as a half billion dollars. solyndra executives personally showed the president around their operation last year. top executives promised to testify today, under oath, before house investigators. their lawyers now say they will show up but decline to answer questions and invoke their 5th amendment protections against self-incrimination.

    >> they have now broken their word yet again. we're not going to stop until we get all the answers.

    >> reporter: as recently as this summer solyndra officials gave congress an upbeat report. now republicans and democrats feel deceived.

    >> in july, the ceo of solyndra told me that company was doing very well. they were even going to double their revenues. a month later they went into bankruptcy. i feel like i was misled.

    >> reporter: so far the investigation has revealed that even before the $535 million loan guarantee was approved two years ago, there were warnings that the project potentially runs out of cash in september 2011 , which it did. another key point came early this year when solyndra was in trouble and the administration debated whether to pour in still more taxpayer money. in a january e-mail, a staffer suggested it might be better to let the company fail. if solyndra defaults down the road, the optics will arguably be worse later than they would be today, he wrote. questions will be asked why the administration made a bad investment not just once but twice.

    >> they should have stopped then knowing they were playing with taxpayer money, not funny money .

    >> reporter: instead the administration let solyndra draw down $75 million more in taxpayer loans. and it agreed some investors would take priority over taxpayers in a bankruptcy which is highly unusual. administration officials say they believe they made the right decision at the time, that giving solyndra more money may have enabled the company to succeed if solar prices had not plummeted. the fbi is investigating whether the company intentionally misled about its finances. the company says it did not. matt?

    >> thank you very much.

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