This photo shows 20 solar-powered houses displayed on the National Mall for Solar Decathlon 2009.
Photo courtesy Wikipedia/Richard King

This photo shows 20 solar-powered houses displayed on the National Mall for Solar Decathlon 2009.

Despite objections from participants, federal officials have barred the popular Solar Decathlon from the National Mall this year over concerns that the large-scale event would cause too much property damage.

Organized by the Department of Energy (DOE), the Solar Decathlon is a competition held every two years that invites university teams to design solar-powered homes, which they then construct on the Mall as part of a public expo. This year’s expo, which will feature entries by 20 teams, is scheduled to run from September 23 to October 2.

But, on January 11, the National Park Service revoked the permit allowing those temporary dwellings to be built. The Department of the Interior, which oversees the park service, and the DOE together decided that previous Solar Decathlons had caused too much wear and tear on the Mall, according to department officials. 

“There were gouges and holes and troughs that were created, and the grass was completely destroyed,” mainly from trucks and cranes that delivered the houses, says Bill Line, a National Park Service spokesman.

Of the 4,000 events that take place on the Mall each year—including concerts, black-tie dinners, and political protests—the Solar Decathlon, which has been held four times there, causes the most damage, Line adds.

It remains unclear where the expo might be held instead. “We hope to have a site picked out in weeks, not months,” said Jen Stutsman, a DOE spokeswoman, in mid-February. (Richard King, the Solar Decathlon director, declined to comment.)

Launched in 2002, the biannual competition and expo now draws dozens of entries from around the globe. Twenty teams are selected to construct their dwellings.

During the expo, judges evaluate how finalists’ homes fare in real-life conditions. The finalists earn points in 10 categories—the “decathlon”—including architecture, market appeal, and “comfort zone,” which tests if the house can maintain a temperature range of 71 to 76 degrees. Winners are announced during the expo. 

Even if the exhibition hasn’t been cancelled, participants are still upset.

Part of Solar Decathlon’s mission is to educate the public about energy efficiency in construction, and few locations are as well traversed as the Mall, says Elisabeth Neigert, an architecture student at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, whose team includes students from the California Institute of Technology as well as her own college.

A move off the Mall could also jeopardize financial support for the projects as corporate sponsors agreed to pay for construction in part because the Mall is so highly visible, she says.

Neigert, who is working on behalf of many other finalists to get the park service to reverse its call, has so far received promises of support from 14 U.S. Senators and 11 Representatives, she says.

She adds that the federal government’s decision to move the event is particularly disappointing in light of President Obama’s call for clean energy in this year’s State of the Union Address. “The government issued a challenge, and we rose to the challenge,” she says. “Now, the government is taking it away from us.”

Other participants worry that any location change might also mean a date change, and that could play havoc with some of the technical aspects of their homes, which need sunlight to function.

“We can’t start too late in the season because we’re geared toward certain temperatures,” says Marilys Nepomechie, an architecture professor at Miami’s Florida International University, whose 50-person team created a house whose shutters open and close with the light. Still, Nepomechie, who particpated in 2005’s Decathlon, seems unsurprised by the decision to relocate the expo. The event “might have been a victim of its own success,” she says.