Not too far from the U.S. Capitol and the Smithsonian museums, a group of college students is constructing a kind of temporary monument to solar energy.

The newfangled, temporary houses rising on the grounds of the National Mall are part of the Solar Decathlon, a Department of Energy-sponsored event that kicked off Friday, and promises to test just how wacky and creative college students can get with solar panels and other sustainable building materials.

For the solar industry, the competition is a chance to build awareness for energy-efficient technology, and to develop and showcase new ideas in solar-powered buildings.

It's also a chance to test what might become the next generation of solar entrepreneurs and designers.

"We should call this Generation G, for Green," said Jonathan Bonanno, who invests in early stage cleantech companies. "These are the ones that are going to figure out how to harness solar energy more efficiently, and the more smart, brilliant young scientists who want to come together to think about innovative ways to solve the problem, that's a good thing."

The Decathlon -- now in its third incarnation -- is made up of 20 teams of architecture, engineering and business students from the United States, Canada, Germany, Puerto Rico and Spain. Teams were granted $100,000 each to spend over two years or so to design and build an 800-square-foot home powered entirely by solar energy, with off-the-shelf photovoltaic panels.

During the 10-day competition, students assemble their homes on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and then are given a series of tasks to test how well the houses hold up under daily life activities, such as maintaining certain temperature and humidity levels, running lighting and appliances and charging an electric car.

Steve Lee, a professor of architecture at Carnegie Mellon University, is spearheading a team that has designed a series of pods that can be plugged into a central energy source, and then easily installed and removed from the home to create more or less living space.

"We envision a huge e-commerce activity related to the buying, selling, and trading of pods online," said Lee, who said he is in conversations with large building suppliers that might be interested in the flexible-home concept.

Lee has been involved in the competition since its first year in 2002, and has watched interest in solar building grow since then.

"These students in particular have been talking about the environment in all of their classes, and are much more receptive to thinking about environmental issues," said Lee. "And this year, with all of the news about energy and people getting dinged at the gas pump, people here are asking more intelligent questions and really seriously thinking about investing in energy efficiency.

"Before it was more of just a show and tell."