Newsletter Subscription
Print Subscription
Change Address
Cloud Over Solar Decathlon
Biennial student competition uprooted from National Mall
A scene from the last Solar Decathlon held in 2009 on the National Mall.
Stefano Paltera

Student teams working to design and build twenty solar homes in time for this October’s Solar Decathlon were taken by surprise when the Department of Energy (DOE), the competition sponsor, announced a change of venue. Traditionally held on the National Mall, the biennial international exhibition of sustainability has yet to settle into a new home.

The move was announced January 11th but no new site has been named, confounding students who have based their designs on the climatic and site conditions on the National Mall.

Citing wear and tear caused by crowds and construction, Bill Line at the National Parks Service said the venue wasn’t the right fit. “The Solar Decathlon is certainly a worthy cause, but construction of so many homes and the equipment involved literally rips up the National Mall,” Line said. “The American public has charged the National Parks Service with maintaining the National Mall as a place they can be proud of, not an area that’s torn up.”

In November the Parks Service completed the National Mall Plan, a document four years in the making that outlines a strategy to restore the revered public space. Line insists that the Parks Service did not kick the Solar Decathlon off the mall, rather in December, Secretary of Energy Dr. Steven Chu and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar mutually agreed to find a new home for the event.

Tom Welch, a spokesperson for the DOE, said officials are searching for a new location and expect an announcement sometime in February, but he declined to give a date. “Everything is open to consideration,” Welch said, “We’re not limiting our search to Washington, D.C.”

Student PSA supporting the Solar Decathlon on the National Mall.

Students involved with the competition have organized an online petition campaign, already amassing thousands of names in support of keeping the competition on the 700 acres often called “the nation’s front yard.” The petition points to official Solar Decathlon rules holding teams liable for damage to the mall.

“We’ve been working on this project for over a year and a half,” Reed Finlay, Project Manager of SCI-Arc and Caltech’s entry, told AN. Their project, CHIP 2011, which includes a snug wrapping of vinyl over cellulose insulation, canted rooftop PV panels, and a sloping cantilever intended—prior to the venue change announcement—to highlight a view of the Washington Monument, has involved 60 students and over $100,000 in donations. “The Mall gives exposure and credibility to what we’re doing,” he added. “I think they’ll be surprised with the backlash.”

Branden Klayko