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Solar Decathlon: Dominion gets behind an employee who is working to lower electricity demand in houses

Peter Galuszka Sep 11, 2018 1:00 AM

Imagine you are waking up in your FutureHaus, a smart, solar-powered, prefabricated domicile with 950 square feet of space that looks like it was made out of Lego blocks.

You order coffee and it brews automatically. To select your clothes, you touch a remote inside a mirror. Flashing lights show you which drawers the items are in. You touch another button and your Murphy bed folds up. The bedroom wall slides to give you an extra 550 square feet of living room space.

"All the floors in the house fold up. We want to make it more efficient," says Matthew Boys, a recent Virginia Tech engineering graduate who now works for Dominion Energy.

By experimenting with new, prefabricated designs with renewable power underlined, Boys' and his colleagues' ideas could entirely reshape home construction. More pre-made sections, called cartridges, can be put together to expand living space. In the living room, a giant, flat screen television swivels so artwork can be displayed on its opposite side. The structure is completely solar powered. As much as 90 percent of water used in the house is recycled.

Boys is part of a Tech team planning on shipping their FutureHaus prototype made by students from Blacksburg to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates for the 2018 Solar Decathlon Middle East competition. A Dominion charitable foundation is one of three large companies pitching in $150,000 so Boys and his team can travel for the contest that runs Nov. 14 to 19. The house, neatly folded, is due to be taken to Dubai by ship in October for arrival before the event.

According to Boys, Dubai officials are keen on developing new forms of housing to take advantage of the days of sunlight in their Persian Gulf city. "They want to be the most sustainable city in the world," Boys says.

The program of regular competitions got underway in 2002 when the U.S. Department of Energy started the smart home competition. A series has been held since. Virginia Tech has participated in several decathlons and in 2010 won first place in Madrid.

Boys got involved about a year ago after he worked his third summer as an intern at Dominion. Growing up in Bon Air and attending Richmond Christian School, he displayed a talent for mathematics and science before heading off to Virginia Tech. The Eagle Scout earned a degree in industrial and systems engineering in June.

After returning to Tech in fall 2017, Boys sent high-ranking Dominion officials a 1,500-word email letting them know of the FutureHaus project. They took interest and kept up with it throughout the school year and after Boys went to work full time at the utility. They agreed to let Boys have time off to travel to Dubai and kicked in a donation. DuPont and Kohler, a plumbing fixture maker, are donating similar amounts for the Tech effort.

It may seem ironic that Dominion, which critics charge has been slow to move into renewables in favor of large nuclear and fossil fuel generation facilities, is backing the FutureHaus. If prefabricated houses move forward it could be a threat to the larger utilities market for power since electricity demand would be less.

Recently, Dominion has been taking bigger steps into renewables by expanding its solar farm generation and by investing in a small project to test wind turbines in the ocean off of Virginia Beach.

The utility also has worked in the past two put limits on how much electricity that independent generators, such as homeowners who put solar panels on their roofs, can sell into the Dominion system,

Asked about the seeming contradiction, a Dominion spokesman Rayhan Daudani wrote in an email: "Dominion Energy already has thousands of participants in our net metering program and the demand continues to increase." The program, he wrote, "allows customers to interconnect approved renewable generation systems to the electric grid and provide electricity to their residence or facility."

Ivy Main, a lawyer with the Sierra Club, says she has attended some of the solar decathlons and wrote in an email that she "loves the innovation in solar and energy efficient design." She's enthusiastic about the potential that solar-powered houses might have to reduce energy use.

She also sees problems. One is that the homebuilding industry has pushed codes that favor older ways of powering homes and she is suspicious of how utilities may respond. She says some utilities may hike base charges for homeowners wanting to sell electricity to the utility, which also could thwart efforts to sell power back to the utility at higher retail rates. There also may be signs that Dominion wants to be able to own the solar panels on houses "obviating the threat from customer-owned solar," she says.

For now, and for Boys and his team, the trip to Dubai could be a first step towards a revolution in housing despite lingering questions. S