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How student-built solar homes can help solve US housing and energy crisis

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On the other hand, these same 100 or so houses account for massive investment on the part of universities, and also corporate sponsors and taxpaying citizens.

Consider the numbers: Twenty teams, representing nearly 30 different universities from around the world, will collectively travel a conservatively estimated 40,000 miles to participate in the 2013 Solar Decathlon. That distance is nearly one and a half times the circumference of the Earth. These aren’t light travelers; we’re talking about teams of people, plus an entire home and the resources to reconstruct it.

The University of Minnesota’s entry from 2009 provides a powerful example of this conflict. The futuristic-looking house now stands quietly at a prominent intersection on the university’s campus, its outside walls and rooftop clad in deep-blue solar panels. The house and its team placed fifth overall and earned top honors in engineering and lighting design in the 2009 competition.

But the 550 square foot, one bedroom home also cost over $1.5 million, when transportation and other direct expenses, student labor, and donated services were taken into consideration.

“I fear the Solar Decathlon only reinforces to the public that sustainable design is for the rich,” laments Dean Thomas Fisher, visibly proud and perplexed by Minnesota’s house.

As a result, the school has redirected its energy to designing and building “net-zero” houses with its local Habitat for Humanity affiliate, including one recently completed house in Princeton, Minn. A single mother of two teenage daughters, Princeton resident Jeanette Jensen purchased the roughly $100,000 energy-efficient home with a no-interest mortgage, and will save hundreds of dollars in utility costs each year.

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