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Shoreline Community College Home Gets Boost From the Sun

Mike Nelson stood in his new office, where walls of corrugated metal clash just a tad with silky-smooth floors and walls of sustainably harvested eucalyptus.

“Very soon, the old ways are going,” Nelson, director of the Northwest Solar Center, told visitors. “The old ways are dying.”

Nelson’s office is the solar-powered Zero Energy House at Shoreline Community College, which is intended to produce as much energy as it uses.

The tale behind the house stretches to Eastern Washington and all the way back to Washington, D.C.

It all started in 2002 when Mat Taylor’s students at Washington State University in Pullman started talking about building a solar-powered home to enter in the U.S. Energy Department’s Solar Decathlon.

Students from the WSU schools of architecture, civil engineering, interior design and construction management transformed a hand-sized sketch into the Zero Energy House. They disassembled it and transported it to the National Mall in Washington for the 2005 competition.

“It’s 100 percent student-built,” Taylor, an architecture professor, told visitors at a dedication ceremony. “That’s what I’m most proud of.”

The house will serve as a laboratory for what Taylor and like-minded folks hope will be a wave of students yearning to experiment with new energy-saving ideas.

Developers, Nelson said, “can’t afford to try to sell the clients experiments. And so you really do need as many living laboratories as possible.”

“What we’re into is high-performance housing,” Nelson said.

Nelson, a WSU employee, said the state will be key in spurring demand for solar products.

“If our state Legislature provides the right incentives, it will drive this forward and provide jobs,” he said.

The home itself looks unconventional, not just because of a “butterfly” roof intended to maximize solar uptake, but also because it was built around a discarded shipping container – the kind you see stacked on cargo ships crossing Elliott Bay.

The container and its corrugated metal walls house the home’s plumbing fixtures, solar batteries, inverters and other systems needed to run the house. Wrapped around the container is a living room and kitchen area connected by a hallway to a bedroom, laundry and bathroom, all rolled into one, which will serve as Nelson’s office.

Total square footage: 650.

It’s not just the size that makes the house work, though. It’s also the students’ painstaking attention to dozens of details, including installing special insulation and ventilation, and energy-efficient appliances.

However, visitors are advised to just ignore the wires hanging out of the walls. It’s an experiment, for Pete’s sake!

Nelson is thinking about replacing the refrigerator – a three-compartment model designed to minimize cold loss when being opened – with a brand any consumer could find in the store. The home has an energy-saving, front-loading washer and dryer as well – though they’re not hooked up right now.

Robert Shields, a computer sciences instructor at the community college, notes that in some respects it is actually more roomy than his apartment when he lived in Japan.

“I remember reading about this stuff when I was in college in the ’70s,” he said. “The whole idea of an entire house off the grid is great.”

Actually, Taylor said, nowadays solar advocates aren’t going off the grid. They’re counting on generating solar power in the daytime – when they’re away at work – and selling that to utilities. That buys them energy credits they can claim when the days grow short and dark.

That’s the kind of thing it’s going to take to plug a 200- to 500-megawatt hole expected in the Northwest’s energy supply by 2015, Nelson said. By comparison, the Bonneville Power Administration, which sells power from federally owned dams, generates an average of about 7,000 megawatts.

Taylor said the state should try to make it financially more palatable for people to go solar. And people need an attitude change, too, he said, about the big upfront costs.

“You’re buying your utility bill up front for the rest of the your life,” he said. “That’s what people don’t get yet.”

Associated Press

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