[Editor’s Note: For our latest column we invited Darius Siwek, a supporter of an effort to get the annual Solar Decathlon restored back to the National Mall after it was removed from there by the U.S. Department of the Interior over concerns of potential damage and excess foot traffic to the area. Siwek also produced the video shown at the end of this column regarding this cause.]
The Solar Decathlon is a competition presented by the United States Department of Energy where twenty collegiate teams from across the world design and build their own version of an affordable, energy-efficient, and environmentally-friendly home. The winner of this competition is the team whose creation exemplifies this ideal.
Since 2002, the various teams have presented their houses on display at the National Mall, the scene of many significant public gatherings such as the March on Washington, the Million Man March, and the Inauguration of President Barack Obama. As of now, the government-sponsored competition to design the best green home is looking for a home.
The Department of the Interior, administered by Ken Salazar, ordered the Solar Decathlon off the National Mall to an area unknown at the time of this writing. The DOI, whose responsibility it is to manage and conserve most federal land and natural resources, insists that displaying the homes on the National Mall, combined with the impact of pedestrian traffic, damages the land in excess. They believe the Solar Decathlon would inflate the cost of the DOI’s proposed restoration of the Mall.
At the National Mall, the Solar Decathletes hoped to galvanize an interested public (free of charge) with their projects by allowing people to tour the homes, enter the idea-space of several bright and innovative minds, and let shine some of the world’s best student design-and-engineering talent. As a public venue in the heart of D.C., no site teems with stronger historical energy or greater promotional value. Deservedly, the students view their work in alignment with the culturally-significant land as stepping stones towards a brighter future powered by renewable energy, a picture painted largely by President Obama himself, whose imperatives for green, clean energy became a cornerstone of his administration. The students view their efforts as responses to his policies.
On January 25, 2011, in his State of the Union Address, the President reasserted his commitment to building industries devoted to renewable energy. He channeled President Kennedy’s call to Space Race action — that former president urged the nation to go to the moon not because it was easy, but because it was hard – and with identical rhetoric and intonation, President Obama told us to stop and recognize a “Sputnik moment” when we saw one, challenging the best minds of this generation to solve the hardest problems in clean energy. If we can, he said, “We will fund the Apollo projects of our time.” And yet, two weeks prior to the State of the Union Address, the DOI gave the Solar Decathlon the boot.
We might take the Interior Department’s claims regarding property damage more seriously had they not replaced the Solar Decathlon with the National Book Fair. Scheduled during the same time the Decathlon was going to occur (this coming September), the Book Fair is bound to draw as many people to the Mall, if not more, and do the kind of “damage” the Interior Department hoped to avert when it moved the Solar Decathlon off-site. Had they cordoned off the Mall, left it empty, and prepared it for restoration in September, we wouldn’t be so bitter about the Book Fair being there.
Consider this: each Solar Decathlon team signs a contract with the government, absorbing responsibility for any damage to the land caused by their houses when set up for display. Fair enough. Then why is the whole program getting moved because the Interior Department is concerned about damage to the grounds? Aren’t the students already liable for it?
The arguments for damage to the Mall are specious. This is really an issue of fairness, plain and simple.
It’s also a question of an administration not walking its talk. What signal is our government sending those students, scientists, and engineers whose talents are summoned, then dismissed because of some bureaucratic nonsense? The students’ work deserves to be showcased in line with the President’s announced priorities. Otherwise, the President’s commitments to renewable energy come across as a publicity stunt. Associations with Kennedy’s Space Race, drawn to strengthen this new program’s sense of destiny, seem flimsy for the moment.
How about this? Don’t ground the Clean Energy Race. Give the students and the President’s policies the publicity they deserve and reinstate the Solar Decathlon on the National Mall. Doing so gives the President’s commitments the credibility they sorely need. Together, we can all go to the moon.
Want to do more? Sign an online petition to get the Decathlon restored to the National Mall.