Solar Decathlon kicks off amidst NREL layoffs

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The U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon kicked off on Wednesday in California, where collegiate teams involving hundreds of students from around the world compete in designing, building and operating solar-powered homes that are affordable, energy efficient, attractive and easy to live in.

The popular challenge, however, was overshadowed by staff cuts at NREL, which has helped organize the biennial event since its inception in 2002.

Taking place at the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, California, this year’s Solar Decathlon brings together hundreds of students and 14 teams from universities in the United States, Germany, Honduras, Italy and Panama. Over the next nine days, they will compete in 10 contests that gauge each house’s performance, livability and affordability.

The affordability contest rewards teams that build houses with estimated costs at or below $250,000. The teams will have to perform a variety of everyday tasks, including cooking, laundry and washing dishes in order to test the livability and energy use of their houses. The winner of the overall competition is the team that best blends affordability, consumer appeal and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency.

“These inspiring collegiate teams show the world how energy-efficient building design and clean energy products available today can help families and businesses save money by saving energy,” said Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, who headlined the opening ceremony on Thursday. “The event provides student competitors with unique real-world training to become the clean energy workforce of the future and helps ensure that our nation remains competitive in the global race for clean energy.”

Over the last decade, the competition has prepared approximately 20,000 students to become future innovators in clean energy technologies and efficient building designs that cut carbon pollution and help slow the effects of climate change.

The solar homes, which are open to the public free of charge, are expected to attract thousands of visitors.

NREL blues

Despite the festive mood at the start of the Solar Decathlon, NREL employees had little reason to celebrate this week after the layoff on Monday of 15 people, about 10% of the organization’s solar research staff. Most of those cut were researchers involved in long-term programs and next-generation PV technologies, according to Greentech Media, which reported that NREL was also seeking voluntary separation for about 50 additional employees. A total of about 70 staffers are expected to lose their jobs, just below 4% of NREL’s workforce.

Greentech Media added that the Energy Department’s solar funding had dropped nearly 20% since 2012 to $233 million and that funding for NREL’s advanced, next-generation solar PV technologies had remained flat for those four years.