The National Park Service and Department of Energy have cast a shadow over this year's Solar Decathlon with the announcement this week that the fifth installment of the popular program will not take place on the National Mall.
Citing concern for the long-term health of the mall, the Park Service and DOE said they are seeking an alternate site for the event that has taken place within blocks of the Capitol four times since 2002. The Park Service is currently working on a major plan to revitalize the 684-acre park.
Event organizers say they hope the event will still take place in Washington, D.C., but added that they are contemplating several other cities around the country, including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and St. Louis.
"It will be least disruptive and more cost-effective to keep it in Washington; that's where we've always planned to do it, but since we are looking, why not look at some other spots that might be just a wonderful venue and an opportunity to take this good story to other sections of ... the country?" said Richard King, who directs the program for DOE.
Possible alternate sites that would keep the program in the nation's capital include National Harbor in suburban Maryland and RFK Stadium in Washington. The Montgomery County fairgrounds in Maryland has also been mentioned.
A final decision is expected "in the next couple of weeks," King said.
Members of the 20 collegiate teams that have been selected to compete in this year's event expressed shock and disappointment at the decision. Most found out about the move from DOE officials while attending the International Builders Show in Orlando, Fla., where they are displaying scale models of the solar-powered homes they will design for the September competition.
"Throughout, we've all been dreaming about building these solar-powered houses on the Mall," said Addison Godine, a senior on the Middlebury College team. "Any other location seems like it will be less."
Godine said that finding out just nine months before the competition is particularly difficult because many teams have already designed their energy-efficient homes specifically for September weather in Washington. Some designs would have to undergo major overhauls if the event is moved to Los Angeles, which is one of several alternate locations being considered.
"Like many of the other teams, we're a little bit concerned," said Johann Kyser, a junior at the University of Calgary and member of Team Canada. "We've made a lot of arrangements based to the fact that it's going to be on the National Mall."
For example, Team Canada had hoped to find a partner in the National Museum of the American Indian to promote its design for a sustainable housing option for an Alberta Native American client. That plan would go out the window if the event is moved out of Washington.
As they wait to find out where September's competition will be held, disappointed students have found advocates in some industry officials.
Chip Dence, a member of the National Association of Home Builders who has served as a judge during past Solar Decathlons, said today he has sent a letter to the White House asking that President Obama step in to reverse the decision to move the event.
"That's kind of changing the rules in the middle of the game because these teams have already gotten a lot of sponsors who anticipated they were going to displaying their products on the mall," Dence said. "With an administration where one of their number one priorities is clean energy technologies, it would seem the president should straighten out his boys at [the departments of Interior] and Energy."
King said it is unlikely that the decathlon will ever return to the mall but that DOE hopes to rotate the event between different cities in future years.
King acknowledged that there has been a lot of disappointment with this week's decision among the students, "but they're a very resilient group and we'll make the best of the situation."
That already appeared to be happening this week.
"It's tough for everyone," said Kevin Rodgers, a member of the Purdue University team. But "from a team standpoint, it's really brought everyone together from the separate teams."
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