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Students work on the roofs of their houses during the Solar Decathlon competition. (Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

For the past two years, students from universities and colleges around the world have spent endless hours working to create an attractive and efficient solar-powered home for the 2009 Solar Decathlon competition.

Today, 20 solar homes — two of them Canadian — are sitting outside Washington's National Mall, where they will be opened for public viewing and tested for how successfully they operate on solar energy. 

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Members of Team Alberta install wall panels for the living area of their solar-powered house. (Gerry Strauoff)

The competition, hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy, challenges 20 teams to build a livable home that operates on solar power alone. The homes are then judged on 10 factors, including architecture, market viability, engineering and lighting design, said Tom Welch of the U.S. Department of Energy. 

Mark Blackwell, project chairman for the Alberta Solar Decathlon Team, said 100 students, faculty and staff worked on their solar home, sometimes dedicating more than 16 hours a day.

Blackwell, a third-year business student at the University of Calgary, came across the competition while surfing the internet. He immediately started looking for people interested in taking part.

With the help of faculty and staff, he expanded his team to encompass students and faculties from SAIT Polytechnic, Mount Royal University and the Alberta College of Art and Design.

Although Team Alberta's house, SolAbode, is standing in Washington, Blackwell said it is still "very well-connected with Alberta because of its wood-and-beam construction."

While aiming to make the Alberta Solar Decathlon Team's home, No. 1 and bring the trophy to Canada, Blackwell said he received his biggest prize when construction of the house was recently completed.

"It's just phenomenal to stand and look at what you've worked on for the past two years," he said.

Pride and relief

Maun Demchenko felt overwhelmed with "pride, relief and excitement" when her team's house was completed, but she is most impressed with how much could be achieved when people from different disciplines and institutions come together.

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Students from Team Ontario/BC prepare North House for the opening day of the competition. (Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

Demchenko is a member of the Ontario/B.C. team, made up of students and faculty from the University of Waterloo, Ryerson University and Simon Fraser University. Like the Alberta Solar Decathlon Team, team Ontario/B.C. dedicated two years and as much as 16-hour workdays on their home, North House.

The first Solar Decathlon was held in 2002 and has occurred every two years since then. Even though the competition will end Oct. 21, Demchenko said, "it is only the first step to a much larger research project." Her team will bring the house back to Ontario to conduct research on how to improve it and make it more marketable.

Welch said one of the main goals of the competition is to educate participants about the benefits of renewable energy and to challenge students to think of the impact it has on our lives. The U.S. Department of Energy also hopes this will help move solar technologies into the marketplace.

The top three teams will be announced Oct. 16.

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