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Solar power offers one of the most viable and exciting alternatives to traditional energy sources. Its potential is virtually untapped and offers tremendous opportunity in the years ahead for contractors and craftsmen alike, who will be needed to handle the installation and wiring needs.

When people think about solar power they usually think about panels on roofs or in parking lots and yards. But technology is advancing that will utilize almost every surface a building or residence has to harness for solar energy.

With that in mind, it’s no surprise that the IBEW and NECA has a high degree of interest in the development of solar power, even at the grassroots level. Electri-International is NECA’s foundation, which Is dedicated to generating and publishing advancements in the electrical industry. One of those accomplishments is the development of a very special energy efficient house that is being designed and built by students at Penn State University.

There’s a new star rising in photovoltaic technology. The Solar Decathlon, sponsored by the US Department of Energy, is underway to help understand, develop and showcase solar electric systems. The competitors here at Penn State are among 20 teams from colleges and universities around the world vying for the coveted title of first place. More than 900 students on this campus have been involved in one aspect or another on the project they’ve dubbed Morning Star. The goal is to build the most energy-efficient, attractive and effective solar-powered house that will be transported and judged in October on the Washington Mall.

David Riley, Associate Professor, Penn State Department of Architectural Engineering
“I think literally the climate has changed in this conversation about green design and renewable energy. And the awareness level that exists right now among the general public, the conversations that I’m hearing, and the interest level in how we can be doing better in our homes and in our cars, is much more commonplace right now. We’re very excited to be a part of the Decathlon this year because we think the world is ready, more than ever, to learn about the kind of things the Decathlon is intended to exhibit.”
The undertaking is enormous. Professor Riley has formed a core team that is working feverishly to design and build the solar home which can generate enough photovoltaic power to operate everything in it, as well as a vehicle for travel.

Thomas Chorman, Graduate Student, Penn State University
“We’re going to try to do a comparison between electric cars and fuel cell cars. The idea is to try to create a hybrid renewable energy system where we can use the solar energy to either charge and electric car that we would drive around or to use that electricity to electrolyze water to be able to store hydrogen and use that for a fuel cell car.”

Entrants will be judged in 10 areas. Part of the judging will be objective, measuring specific performance, while other areas are subjective, aesthetics and comfort of the home.

David Riley, Associate Professor, Penn State Department of Architectural Engineering
“The Decathlon challenges teams to use available technologies, ones that can be purchased, and integrate them into the house. And the innovation lies in the products that are selected and how they’re brought together as a system. This is very much a system design challenge. But it also takes a lot of the products that might not be as well known among the public but are out there. You might not see them at Lowes or Home Depot yet. It will put them in front of a huge audience, and show them how it works, and it just makes it real.”

Another real-world experience for the students was raising the funds to construct the home. Their biggest sponsor is Electri-International, a foundation under NECA that seeks out research for the electrical construction industry.

Russ Alessi, President, Electri-International
“You could consider the foundation like a speed boat. We kind of go out there, out in front of the association, and we look for and identify new opportunities, new markets, new ways of doing things that will ultimately benefit the NECA contractor directly, and also uplift the entire construction industry.”
As solar power continues down the road from novelty to practicality, NECA and their partners in the IBEW realize their understanding of these systems is at the core of making them work.

David Riley, Associate Professor, Penn State Department of Architectural Engineering
“As they become more affordable, and be become more interested in photovoltaic systems, there are a lot of technical system problems that need to be solved. Electrical contractors possess the knowledge of how systems work, that are going to enable the full-system deployment of technologies like these. That knowledge and that understanding is very valuable in the design, in very efficient electrical building systems. I think that electrical contractors are going to become known as the providers of energy to buildings, and it will create new markets for their services. I think it presents a very important opportunity for the industry.”

Bob Bruce of Bruce and Merrilees Electric Company in Pennsylvania says it’s a opportunity contractors welcome.

Robert Bruce, Chairman, CEO, Bruce and Merrilees Electric Company
“Contractors are always looking for new products, new ways to do business, new innovative things hat are being developed in our industry. Solar energy is one of those things that is being developed. And the electrical contractors are the ones that are going to want to be involved in in installing that product.”
Bruce says that he and the thousands of other contractors who make up NECA look to the organization for leadership in recognizing what’s coming in the future. And that future is what the Decathlon is all about. Once it’s over, the 800-square foot home will be put on a permanent foundation and will become a small research lab on the Penn State campus. While the immediate goal is to win the competition, the Penn State students feel like they’ve already impacted the building industry.

Thomas Chorman, Graduate Student, Penn State University
“The great thing about the competition is that while there is a great driving force to really succeed and represent our university, it’s more for a higher purpose. We’re not caught up in wanting o beat another school, but more so wanting o develop this technology in the best way that can represent our school so that people who go to this competition see that Penn State’s entry see something special about what we did.”

Gretchen Miller, Industrial Engineering Student, Penn State University
“It’s been exhilarating. It’s fast, it’s interesting, the people are wonderful and you really feel like you’re making a difference.”

Penn State’s Morning Star finished product will be on display in October as part of a solar village on the National Mall in Washington DC.