On a chilly—but more importantly—a sunny Friday in early October, the E Source market research team left our office cubes behind to take a field trip to the US Department of Energy’s 2017 Solar Decathlon. We carbo-loaded for the event at a local diner and then headed over to the fields southwest of Denver International Airport that are typically vacant. On this day, though, the lots were full of university students who were visibly exhausted but equally enthusiastic to show off their hard work.

Eleven teams of young adults from around the country and the globe spent almost two years creating energy-efficient 600- to 1,000-square-foot homes powered by the sun. These same students had to then transport their creations to the competition site and reconstruct them in 10 days so they’d be ready for judging. No wonder they looked tired.

Juries consisting of professionals in industries such as architecture, engineering, and communications judged the homes in 10 contest areas:

  • Architecture
  • Market potential
  • Engineering
  • Communications
  • Innovation
  • Water
  • Health and comfort
  • Appliances
  • Home life
  • Energy

Denver’s Trendiest New Neighborhood

A temporary plastic road created an ersatz neighborhood for the innovative homes. We, along with an excited crowd of curious and happy-to-be-here-not-there middle-school students, nosed around in the houses, pushing buttons, turning knobs, and swiping screens. We first visited the Team Alabama home, which incorporated a safe room where occupants could take shelter from 250-mph hurricane-force winds. Then we moved on to the Washington University – St. Louis home, which was built out of precast concrete embedded with LEDs. Next up was our home team’s house: The UC Berkeley/University of Denver team created a zero-net-energy structure that recovered and reused the heat that most houses waste; it also recycled graywater. Although we didn’t visit the event-winning Swiss Team home, we heard it incorporated biodiversity elements, including a composting worm toilet.

Surviv(AL) home by University of Alabama at Birmingham and Calhoun Community College

Photograph of Team Alabama's solar house. It has a large front awning and a sloped back roof.

CRETE house by Washington University – St. Louis

Photograph of Washington University's solar house. It has four grass-covered columns, a large front porch, and a flat roof.

RISE house by UC Berkeley and University of Denver

Photograph of UC Berkeley and University of Denver solar house. It was built to be Residential, Inviting, Stackable, Efficient.

NeighborHub house by the Swiss Team

Photograph of the Swiss team's solar house. It has fenestration around the outside and a bike repair room

Persona-Based Design

Northwestern University’s House by Northwestern home intrigued us the most because the students incorporated personas into their design. After conducting user research of Chicago’s aging population, Northwestern students created two personas, Lisa and Michael. This married, middle-aged empty-nester couple wants to age in place in an aesthetically pleasing, high-functioning, sustainable home. A House by Northwestern blog post about the Enable home describes Lisa and Michael’s living requirements:

In the earlier years of living in Enable, residents like Michael and Lisa will value the way their house complements their energy-infused lifestyle as they travel more and host gatherings with friends and families. Later, their house can adapt into a space that accommodates Michael and Lisa in their old age, whether that means it includes space for an in-home caretaker or for a wheelchair to move freely around the house.

The Northwestern team incorporated adaptable moving walls, an air-quality-monitoring system, energy-efficient appliances, and a photocatalytic surface treatment that breaks down airborne pollutants to create a modern, functional, and unique home. When I’m ready to retire, I could definitely see myself living in this house.

E Source market research team in front of the Northwestern University Enable house

Photograph of market research team in front of Northwestern University Enable solar house

Persona-based customer research hits close to home for E Source. In partnership with ethnographic research company Egg Strategy, we’ve been building our E Design 2020 offering to help utilities design programs and policies that put the customer first. The utility customer of the future—whether they’re 17 or 70—expects a personalized experience with every vendor, including their energy provider.

Today’s Decathlon Is Tomorrow’s Mainstream

The outing eventually came to an end as we headed back to the office, weary from our limited role in the decathlon. No doubt we’ll see some of these elements come to market in the next few years as they have from previous competitions. For example, we can thank the Solar Decathlon for Chai Energy’s real-time energy-use monitoring app, the University of North Carolina’s structural concrete product that uses greenhouse gas–reducing geopolymer cement, and the University of Colorado’s structural insulated panels, which are made from 100% recycled products.


The E Source Solar Strategy Service can keep you informed of solar trends, and the E Source Technology Assessment Service can let you know about emerging technologies.

But you don’t have to keep track of these innovations yourself. The E Source Solar Strategy Service can keep you informed of solar trends, and the E Source Technology Assessment Service can let you know about emerging technologies.

Make sure to keep an eye out for the next Solar Decathlon, which is scheduled for 2020. If it comes to a city near you, I highly recommend you check it out!

Contributing Authors

Senior Market Research Analyst I, Market Research and Analysis

Laura Ruff Agard specializes in collecting and analyzing data on distributed energy resources (DERs). In her role at E Source,...