Ever since Richard King, director of the DOE's Solar Decathlon, announced during the International Builders' Show in January that the biennial competition will be moved from the National Mall in Washington, D.C., participating students, faculty advisers, and even reporters and members of Congress have been waiting for a new location to be released. King has said he expects a decision to be made before the end of February. Alternative sites in cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles, or New York have been posited as possibilities, but more recent murmurings have the solar-powered home competition being shifted to National Harbor, a far less prominent and accessible location just outside Washington, D.C.—although it would be preferable to a move that would necessitate redesign of the competition houses.
The National Mall has been the site of the Solar Decathlon since it launched in 2002, and thousands of people visit during the biennial competition. National Park Service plans to recondition the Mall and its turf now preclude the competition from being sited there; however, the National Mall Plan calls for restoration of the turf to begin after the Solar Decathlon would be finished. Any harm to the grounds caused by the competition houses and the crowds would be repaired during the National Mall Plan's implementation, and damage is minimized by the use of permeably paved walkways throughout the site, permeable mats under the houses, and installing the houses without ground penetrations.
With the event just seven months away, the venue change introduces many potential challenges for the participants. The 20 Decathlon teams have been working for nearly two years already and most have finalized the designs of their small solar-powered homes and are ready to begin final construction.
"It's very late in the game, which is what makes it so challenging," says Elisabeth Neigert, a graduate student at SCI-Arc, project manager for the SCI-Arc/Caltech decathlon team, and the spokeswoman for the decathletes' lobbying efforts. "We have sponsorships on the line—and not small sponsorships: $100,000 or more. Sponsorship is related to visibility and all of a sudden we're not going to be visible. So the logistics are very difficult for us. All our engineering and design is based on the site and the lots we've been assigned."
"If they'd let us know a year and a half in advance we could have dealt with it. The fact that this comes now is ridiculous," adds graduate student Dave Lee, communications manager for Appalachian State University's decathlon team. In addition to expressing shock and dismay at the venue change, decathlon team members immediately started a campaign to reinstate the competition on the Mall. Students have written letters, lobbied state representatives, requested meetings with DOI and DOE representatives (which have been denied, according to Neigert), and launched a Facebook page to generate support.
Senators and House members also have gotten involved by sending letters to Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, calling the move from the Mall "short-sighted," despite the need to restore the grounds, and urging them to reverse the decision. On Feb. 2, the office of Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) sent the DOI and DOE a letter signed by 11 other senators, and a similar letter was sent Feb. 4 from the office of Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) that was signed by 10 other House members. Both letters urged DOI and DOE officials to reinstate the Solar Decathlon on the National Mall.
So far there has been no official public response to any of these efforts from either the DOI or the DOE, although students report that the DOE has kept them apprised of deliberations over an alternate competition site. But students are hopeful that an acceptable solution will be found, which would be one that restores the Solar Decathlon to a prominent site that is easily accessible by large numbers of people and doesn't require major redesigns of the houses.
The team from the University of Hawaii has a characteristically sunny outlook on the situation: "As the organizers of the event feel the same passion for the competition's public awareness and educational goals, we are confident that they will find a home for the Solar Decathlon that provides the same quality of visitor traffic," says graduate student Elyse Petersen, communications team officer. Doing so would acknowledge the importance of one of the competition's key goals: educating the public and members of government about the benefits of cost-effective, energy-efficient houses that incorporate renewable energy technologies.
"President Obama's State of the Union address discussed competition with China and being leaders in renewable energy and energy efficiency, and that is what this competition is about,” Lee says. “There's no better way to showcase what the U.S. and all the leaders of tomorrow are doing in this field than to have the Solar Decathlon on the Mall."
To view models of all the 2011 projects, check out the Solar Decathlon Flickr stream here.
Stephani L. Miller is Associate Editor for Custom Home Online.