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Solar-powered village rises in nation's capital

Hundreds of college students from around the U.S., and even a handful of other countries, have been busy building a village of solar-powered homes in a park in the nation's capital.
Image: Solar homes being built in DC
Collegiate teams build their solar village at West Potomac Park in Washington, D.C., on Monday. Arlington, Va., is in the background at left.Stefano Paltera / U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon
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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.

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.

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.

A student from Canada helps install the solar panels at the team house on Monday.Stefano Paltera / US Dept. of Energy Solar Decathlon

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.

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.

"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.

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.Stefano Paltera / US Dept. of Energy Solar Decathlon

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."