Students' solar-energy showcase is kicked off Mall

For the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon, homes designed and built by 20 teams of college students for the event's 10 competitions offer ideas on designing with solar panels, rain-catching systems, sustainable materials and more.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 12, 2011; 5:39 PM

At a coffee shop in Los Angeles, Elisabeth Neigert listened to some of the most memorable words in President Obama's State of the Union address. "Win the future," Obama said of the quest to develop alternative energy and wean the nation off fossil fuels. "This is our generation's Sputnik moment."

But a week before the speech, his administration evicted Neigert and about 1,500 students who design and showcase energy-efficient homes as part of the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon from the event's grand stage, the Mall.

Now, the students are waging a campaign to force the National Park Service to honor a permit it granted the event and get back on the Mall, using the president's own words against his administration.

"It's very frustrating," Neigert said. "You wonder if President Obama knows what's going on." The Mall is the best venue for the event, she said, because "it's an international platform that calls the world's attention. Your government gives you credibility. It's just the honor of it."

The decathlon has taken place on the Mall four times, most recently in 2009, and each time federal officials were stunned by the mess it made. Heavy trucks and cranes that put two-story houses in place cracked walkways and tore up grass, they said. The houses sat for about two weeks in 2009, leaving dead grass by the time they were removed.

The standoff sets the stage for a green-vs.-green fight over who will be allowed to use what is quaintly called "America's front yard." Although the Energy Department is the event's sponsor, and its chief, Steven Chu, strongly supports it, the department is standing firm on the eviction.

"We have a responsibility to balance the many uses and demands on the Mall, and to address the fact that the condition of the National Mall has deteriorated significantly as the pressures on it have grown," said Kendra Barkoff, a spokeswoman for the Interior Department, the Mall's custodian. The Mall is scheduled to undergo a $600 million restoration, and "improving the conditions . . . will require tough choices," Barkoff said.

But the students have powerful allies. Democratic Sens. John F. Kerry (Mass.), Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), Barbara Boxer (Calif.) and at least nine others signed a sharply worded letter asking Chu to reconsider.

Obama's soaring speech and the administration's actions have sent mixed signals about energy, said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). "The administration issued a clean-energy challenge. And then they banished the leaders who answered that call from the Mall," Menendez said. "That simply does not make sense.''

The administration hasn't made dealing with its decision easy. According to the students, Energy Department officials have refused to communicate, other than issuing news releases. An Energy Department spokeswoman said the department has yet to name an alternative site and would not confirm or deny rumors that it is considering National Harbor in Prince George's County.

Participating in the decathlon is extremely difficult even when students know their destination. They assemble in 20 teams from as nearby as the University of Maryland and as far as the University of Hawaii and Tongji University in China. They must raise about $1.2 million for travel, lodging and for hauling tons of material to the District.

Judy Scott Feldman, chairman of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, said the administration hasn't been fair. The park service will allow the National Book Festival to use the Mall in September, the month the decathlon was scheduled, Feldman said.

"As far as I know, there is no policy that tells us what will be allowed and what won't. What is the distinction between the two events?" Feldman asked.

The distinction, federal officials said, is that few events tear up the Mall as the decathlon does. And the students, they said, don't appear to care about the havoc they wreak on the historic grounds where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the most famous speech of the civil rights movement and where the giant AIDS quilt was laid.

That is simply wrong, said Neigert, a graduate fellow at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, a member of its decathlon team and a student spokeswoman.

"This is not an [insurmountable] problem," Neigert said. "If each of our teams gave $5,000, that would be $100,000 they would have to fix the Mall. We'd be happy to all go out there, 1,500 students, and re-sod afterward. If it means we'd do [the event] for seven days instead of two weeks, we would.

"I think the way this is being done is unacceptable."

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