Students object to Solar Decathlon move

Posted by Christine, February 10, 2011

The Secretaries of Energy and Interior have decided to move the national Solar Decathlon—a solar energy home design competition–off the National Mall when they hold the next event in the fall, says Bill Line, a National Park Service Washington Region spokesman, reports Chemical & Engineering News.

Students aren’t taking that without comment, though. The following statement was relesed in response:

Media contact:                                                                                                           For Immediate Release
Carolyn Campbell, campcom@pacbell.net
310-659-5427                                                
 
UNIVERSITY STUDENT LEADERS WORLDWIDE, LED BY A TEAM OF SCI-ARC/CALTECH STUDENTS, APPEAL THE DEPARTMENT OF INTERIOR’S DECISION TO MOVE THE SOLAR DECATHLON 2011 OFF THE NATIONAL MALL
 
VENUE CHANGE AFFECTS 20 STUDENT-LED TEAMS FROM UNIVERSITIES AROUND THE WORLD THAT HAVE BEEN DESIGNING SOLAR-POWERED HOUSES FOR THE MALL SITE FOR ALMOST TWO YEARS
 
LOS ANGELES, CA. February 10, 2011:  Twenty student-led teams from universities around the world are appealing the U.S. Department of Interior’s (DOI) January 11 decision to relocate the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Solar Decathlon 2011 from the National Mall to an alternate site.  Elisabeth Neigert, a Masters of Architecture degree candidate at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), is the spokesperson organizing and leading the protest on behalf of the more than 1,000 university student leaders comprising the teams selected by the DOE to compete in the Solar Decathlon 2011.  Neigert is also a Project Manager for the Decathlon entry that SCI-Arc is designing in partnership with California Institute of Technology (Caltech).
 
The DOE Solar Decathlon is an award-winning juried competition that invites 20 university-led teams—some blending students from more than one university—to design, build and operate solar powered houses that are affordable, energy efficient, and well designed.  The 20 houses were to be showcased on an approximately 270,000 square-foot lot on the National Mall from Sept. 23 – Oct 2, 2011. (The Green Space between the Capitol and Washington Monument is approximately 2,000,000 square feet.) All previous DOE Solar Decathlons have taken place on the National Mall and have attracted more than 300,000 people to view the homes and learn more about solar power, sustainability, and green construction.
 
Moving the location of the competition and final display of the 20 houses off the National Mall upends the promise made to the student-led teams by the DOE when they agreed to participate in the Decathlon.  It also negates a use permit granted last year to the DOE by the National Park Service (NPS) for the use of the National Mall site.  The reason given for the venue change by the DOI, which approved the NPS’s request to revoke the permit several months later, is to avoid the impact the event will have on the Mall’s turf.  The space allocated for the Decathlon represents less than 1/8 of the Mall’s grass lawn area however, and all 20 teams are contractually bound to assume the costs of re-sodding the Mall’s lawn and repairing any damage to the grounds.
 
“This decision is particularly unfortunate and surprising in light of the recent State of the Union address, in which President Obama stressed the critical importance of clean energy technologies, including solar-generated power, to America’s future and next generation of innovators.” said Neigert.  “In addition, our Decathlon homes have been designed and engineered specifically to reside on the Mall.  Redesigning them for a new location invalidates two years of planning, and will be very costly for the teams.  Beyond that, displaying them on this very public and iconic site was an integral part of our goal to educate and inspire the public. That is now in jeopardy.”
 
Teams participating in this year’s Decathlon were selected by the DOE in early 2010 and have been designing and building their solar homes ever since.  While each competing team has been pledged a $100,000 grant from the DOE to be used toward their Decathlon project, each has already spent upwards of $1 million on the project, with much of the additional revenue obtained through fundraising efforts.  Neigert is concerned—as are team leaders from the other universities (which this year include entrants from Belgium, Canada, China, and New Zealand)—that the loss of the peerless National Mall venue will create severe monetary problems and potential legal issues for the teams at this late date in the competition, given that sponsorship contracts and gift agreements have been predicated on the Decathlon homes residing on the National Mall.  Moving the location could cause each team to lose irreplaceable and essential project funding.
 
Neigert is actively soliciting support from members of both Houses of Congress – the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives (signed letters as of 2/4/11) to assist the student teams in urging DOI Secretary Ken Salazar to reverse his decision to move the 2011 Solar Decathlon.
 
“We are baffled by the DOI’s decision to move the Decathlon, and don’t understand why the National Mall location presents an insurmountable problem,” says Neigert.  “At the very least, we would like an open and transparent discussion of the issue.  There is more at stake than the costs that will be incurred, by both the teams and the American taxpayers, to move the event.  An important forum for sustainability and renewable energy education will be diminished, and the good will of participating universities, sponsors, and team supporters will be challenged.  Not least of all is the disillusionment of the student teams brought about by having the rug pulled out from under them after almost two years of work.”