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The Solar Decathlon is known worldwide for its public display of renewable energy, as well as the educational value for participating students and visitors of the homes during competition week. What we too often forget to recognize are its effects on the industry, as it provides a test bed for new technologies within the building and efficiency sectors.

For the University of Tennessee, being a Solar Decathlon team has been an incredible platform to begin long-term research partnerships with local companies and organizations. The prestige and visibility of the competition on the world’s stage benefits the team’s collaborators on a grander scale than regular research partnerships. This is not, however, the only reason for the industry to get involved.

The wide variety of expertise that exists in our universities provides an ideal environment for this type of research to take place. At UT Knoxville we have students from Architecture, Mechanical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Interior Design, Landscape Architecture, Graphic Design, and Business, all collaborating on a single project. This creates a stimulating environment for R & D projects, bringing a variety of ideas and thought processes to the table. Conditions like this are costly and hard to come by in the professional environment. Having a completed home as an end result also serves as a platform for performance evaluation, material testing, and continued research.

From the very start, our team took research opportunities into consideration, looking not only at materials and products on the market today, but also at how they could be developed further to create a new, more integrated system. The Solar Decathlon stipulates in its rules that any product used in the competition must be available for purchase by the start date in September 2011. This encourages companies to fast track these components bringing new materials to the market.

The experience has an enormous effect on the students involved as well. Working on a real-world project in a collaborative environment develops a well-trained workforce dedicated to green technologies and practices as they enter the professional world.