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Chinese Students Salvage Cargo Containers for U.S. Solar Contest

Chinese Students Salvage Cargo Containers for U.S. Contest
The Washington Monument is seen behind a row of solar panels atop a home during the Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon in Washington. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Hua Guodong decided to showcase local products in the solar-powered house built by his Shanghai college team for a U.S. Energy Department contest.

After all, students from Appalachian State University in North Carolina used poplar-bark siding in their entry. A group from Middlebury College installed Vermont-slate counters in theirs.

Hua, 23, who leads a group from Tongji University, was inspired by the docks in Shanghai, the world’s busiest container port, where high-rise cranes hoist steel crates onto cargo vessels headed to America helping to deliver a record volume of goods from China.

He designed a dwelling made of six salvaged shipping containers -- “our native resource,” Hua said with a smile in a Sept. 22 interview in Washington.

The 21-member Tongji team is the first from China to participate in the department’s Solar Decathlon since its debut in 2002. This year’s student-designed homes, all powered by sunlight, are on display near the Jefferson Memorial through Oct. 2. The winner will be announced tomorrow.

Contestants are challenged to “integrate solar into design” and “prove to the public that it’s doable,” Richard King, the 25-year Energy Department veteran who came up with the idea for the decathlon, said in an interview Sept. 21.

Dinner Party

The homes can’t be larger than 1,000 square feet and must use commercially available appliances and solar technology. The structures are judged in 10 classifications including water-heating efficiency and entertainment value; each team must host a dinner party. Hua said his group had a particular interest in the affordability category, which requires keeping costs under $250,000, because rising housing prices in China make it difficult for young people to find a place to live.

Hua’s house of discards was built for $248,426, according to a brochure his team distributed at their exhibit.

Each container stands 9.5 feet (2.9 meters) tall, 20 feet long and 8 feet wide. The students assembled the modules in a “Y” shape, linking two together as bedrooms, adding two more to serve as a kitchen and bathroom, and two for a living area.

The outside decking captures rainwater and recycles it. Daikin Industries Ltd., the world’s largest maker of air conditioners, made the ventilation systems. Sanyo Electric Co., which is majority owned by Panasonic Corp., donated the 40 photovoltaic panels that provide electricity.

When the crates were originally used at the port, they may have held computers, jeans or auto parts.

Solar Panels

Another rising export is solar panels. China shipped more units to the U.S. in July than in all of last year, according to Department of Commerce data compiled by SolarWorld AG, a Bonn-based company with a plant in Oregon.

Lawmakers and officials in President Barack Obama’s administration have said that China’s $30 billion in aid to its solar factories has harmed American manufacturers.

Now even the U.S. is subsidizing one small part of China’s industry. The Energy Department gave the Tongji team $100,000 to help pay for its model home. The agency gave the same amount to teams from Canada, Belgium, New Zealand and the U.S.

In two years, it may be the turn for some American universities to be exporters. China is teaming up with the Energy Department to host its own Solar Decathlon in 2013.

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