Students around the globe protest DOI’s decision to move Solar Decathlon 2011 from National Mall

Every two years, student teams from universities around the world gather at the National Mall in Washington D.C. to design, build and operate solar powered houses that not only compete for awards, but educate the public on the properties of a solar powered house through  the Solar Decathlon. However, this year, the Department of the Interior (DOI) has made a major change to the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) competition by deciding to relocate the decathlon to an alternate site.

Teams were chosen to compete in early 2010 and have since been working on their solar home designs, most spending over US$1 million on the project over the past year. News that the venue would be changed at a point so late in the day has led to protests and appeals from the students urging the DOI to reconsider its decisions and the consequences a site change has made on the competition.

Elisabeth Neigert, a masters of architecture degree candidate at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, is the spokesperson and leader on behalf of more than 1,000 university students that are trying to understand what inspired such a change by the DOI. “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.”

In all previous years that the Solar Decathlon has been held, the houses were all showcased on the National Mall and attracted thousands of visitors to view the homes. This year, the competitors were promised by the DOE when they agreed to participate in the Decathlon that their homes would be displayed on a 270,000 square-foot lot on the National Mall from September 23 through October 2.  As Neigert points out, teams from Belgium, Canada, China, New Zealand and other global locations have been planning their designs based on the specifications for exhibition on the National Mall. Student teams are now worried that changing the venue will lead to monetary problems for design change and possible legal issues that stem from sponsorship contracts and gift agreements that all depended on the Decathlon homes being shown on the National Mall.

The DOI stated that its reasoning for moving this year’s Solar Decathlon came from concern of the impact on the Mall’s turf. The change in location counteracts the permit granted last year to the DOE by the National Park Service (NPS) for use of the mall site, which the DOI later approved NPS’s request to revoke the permit. While concern for the grass lawn area is understandable, the space allotted for the Decathlon is less than one-eighth of the mall’s grass lawn. Additionally, each of the 20 student-led teams are contractually bound to assume all costs necessary for the re-sodding of the mall’s lawn and provide repair for any damage to the grounds.

To date, Neigert is vigorously seeking support from member of the U.S Senate and the House of Representatives, some of whom have signed letters that support the student teams in asking DOI Secretary Ken Salazar to overturn his decision to move the Solar Decathlon venue.

“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.”

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