The Department of Energy is once again looking for innovative ideas from college-age students to take energy from the sun and power a house, saving energy costs and moving away from fossil-fuel dependence.

For the third time, the DOE will sponsor a Solar Decathlon in 2007, a competition aimed at tapping the minds of the youngest dreamers from the worlds of architecture, engineering, technology, and even culinary arts to find an answer to the energy problem. The DOE gives each team $100,000 to assist with the cost of designing and building an energy-efficient house.

“We're hoping to show there's a way people can do things in their home right now to save energy,” said John Horst, a DOE representative.

SUNNY DAYS: A solar-powered home on display at the Washington, D.C., mall just needed a few rays of sun to run its systems, but the weather was cloudy for four out of five days during the Energy Department's Solar Decathlon in 2005. Since its inception, the competition has improved, showcasing greater numbers of creative solutions to the nation's dependence on foreign oil. In 2002, 12 teams competed, and by 2005, there were 20. For the 2007 decathlon, 20 teams again have been selected to build energy-efficient houses to be displayed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

“There was a significant difference between 2002 and 2005,” Hurst said. “We continue to see houses grow more visual in design as well as functionality.”

For the second time, the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) is one of the 20 teams chosen. David Schieren, a graduate student at the NYIT who competed in 2005 and will compete again in 2007, says, “There is a demand for clean energy because people are really concerned about energy security and the environment, not to mention that the prices of energy are increasing.”

Matt Vecchione, a junior at NYIT, says the team's new project will take into account how a house should function in the aftermath of a disaster such as Hurricane Katrina or the tsunami that hit South Asia in December 2004. “We're going to show the world that we mean business,” Vecchione says.

Vecchione has another mission, too. “We're trying to keep costs as low as possible for disaster relief. We want to make this house easily affordable for low-income people.”

But despite all the care that goes into the design and construction of a solar-powered home, there is one thing that the participants cannot control: the weather. The 2005 competition saw clouds for most of the five-day period that the model homes were displayed, limiting the performance for all the homes but those that were equipped with good energy storage systems, says Schieren.

But the competition wasn't a total wash. “On the fifth day,” he said, “the sun came out.”