Solar Decathlon houses now have a home on the Mall

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 23, 2011; 11:09 PM

After complaining for weeks that they had plenty of houses but no home, competitors in the Department of Energy Solar Decathlon got a surprise message Wednesday on Twitter: they're back on the Mall.

The 20 college and university teams from Maryland to China were booted off the Mall by the Department of Energy and the Department of the Interior months before the event was to take place.

Federal officials said the 20 energy efficient houses designed by the students end up sitting on grass for two weeks, killing it. But in a conference call Wednesday, Energy officials told the students they could come back to the Mall.

Some of the student organizers cited President Obama's promotion of alternative energy in the State of the Union address in their effort to get back on the Mall. They were supported by numerous Democrats in the Senate.

"I feel incredible. I feel happy," said Elisabeth Neigert, a graduate fellow at the Southern California Institute of Architecture and spokeswoman for its decathlon team.

But the decathlon will not return to the marquee spot on the Mall's main strip between the Washington Monument and the Capitol, where it was held four previous times, most recently in 2009, Energy officials said.

It will move to West Potomac Park, on the peninsula just south of the new Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial, between the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial and the Potomac River.

Energy Secretary StevenChu called it "a world-class location." It allows the students to keep their existing home designs, tailored for Washington's latitude, temperature, and humidity conditions, Chu said.

Officials were concerned that the competition would interfere with a planned $600 million Mall renovation.

"Solar energy is a key component of President Obama's vision for a new energy future and the solar decathlon is part of that future," said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

"The National Mall is America's Front Yard and we have a responsibility to do what is best for the long term health of the Mall," Salazar said. "I am pleased that we have been able to find a strong alternate location for the Solar Decathlon and I am looking forward to a successful event."

Elyse Petersen, a spokeswoman for Team Hawaii, said she read the news on Twitter feeds.

"I pretty much found about it right away. Hundreds of tweets are going through about it. Information travels fast," Petersen said.

The event is scheduled to run from Sept. 22 to Oct. 2, with additional days to set up and break down its enormous displays. Heavy trucks and cranes put the houses in place, sometimes cracking walkways and tearing up grass, National Parks Service officials said.

"We're fiscally responsible for any damage that may occur," Neigert said. "It's written into our contract. We fully respect the National Mall. We want to set a precedent so in 2013 we can remain on the...Mall."

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