Greater Greater Washington

Sustainability


Solar Decathlon move a loss for DC, Decathlon, and the US

Last week, the Department of Energy announced the Solar Decathlon would not be held in DC in 2013. The move is a big loss for city of Washington, the National Mall, the Decathlon itself, and even US climate policy.


Say goodbye to this view. Photo by US Dept of Energy.

The Solar Decathlon has been held in DC every time since its inception in 2002. In its first 4 iterations, it occupied a prominent place on the National Mall. Last year's event faced a rockier road in its planning stages, eventually landing in West Potomac Park.

While DOE touted a move as an opportunity to "expand the excitement excitement generated by the competition and encourage participation from new communities," it's hard to think the 2011 planning troubles didn't make the decision just a bit easier.

Last January, the Department of Energy announced the Decathlon would not take place on the Mall as it had the previous four times. Word was the Department of the Interior, home to the inimitable National Park Service, had pressured DOE because of the Decathlon's negative impact on the Mall's otherwise pristine greenery. NPS applauded the move.

Rumors later surfaced that the Decathlon would land at National Harbor, the bastion of sustainability located outside the Beltway, with dismal transit access and no incidental foot traffic.

After protests from competitors, fans and even Congress members, DOE finally settled on West Potomac Park, at least in central DC, though not terribly convenient or visible. As a result, the organizers had to provide a costly shuttle service from the closest metro stations. The permit conditions and the lack of large paths also required they lay down more tile flooring than ever before to protect the park's grass.

Whatever the cause of the westward move, it will be real detriment to Washington, DC and to the vitality of our monumental core. The National Mall, which has been called a failed public space, suffers from a lack of nearby residences and non-museum attractions.

The two weeks of the Solar Decathlon is the only time you can find dwelling units other than the White House in the region's most central, yet least populated Census tract. Since several team members have to live in their houses, the event literally doubles the population.

Most events on the mall last several hours or a day, attracting people for a very specific purpose only to cast them out again as soon as the event is over. People come for the event, not for the place.

The Solar Decathlon turned the National Mall into a destination, a true place with an interesting streetscape. While the hours to go in the houses were limited, people could admire the craftsmanship from outside any time of day. This encouraged lingering, what Jane Jacobs called one of the most important functions of a good public space.

The Decathlon's placemaking ability was apparent this year, despite its less-than-optimal location. West Potomac Park, which is typically only visited by kickballers and 10k runners, felt lively for two weeks.

It was also a great opportunity for residents and visitors of the nation's capital and fastest growing city to see the potential beauty in compact, energy-efficient living. I can attest to this.

During this year's Decathlon, I was right in the middle of the first-time home buying experience. We were feeling the temptation of the "go farther, get more" mindset that fueled the inexorable creep of suburbia. Seeing small, but beautiful and impeccably designed entries emphasized to us what you can do very little space. We came away fascinated, and firmer in our resolve to forgo space in order to find a excellent urban location.

How did the Decathlon end up in Orange County? The City of Irvine and the Orange County Great Park fought for it.

Meanwhile, it's unclear if NPS even submitted a bid. When asked, DOE said it couldn't release a list of applicants or discuss specific bids. I contacted NPS last week to see if they or an associated group had submitted a bid for the Mall. They haven't yet responded.

Of course, given the agency's joy at this year's move from the Mall, it's doubtful they made much effort to keep it here.

Where other regions have entities that fight to bring vibrant events like the Solar Decathlon in, the Washington region does not. Residents here suffer because the Park Service, as a national entity, doesn't actually represent their interests, though they are its most immediate stakeholders.

It's only fair that the Department of Energy spread the love of the Solar Decathlon around the country. But the US loses the ability to truly showcase its commitment to sustainability. Building two dozen passive houses on America's front lawn, blocks from the halls of power, sends a powerful message.

The Solar Decathlon certainly attracts visitors from afar on its own. But it also benefits immensely from being located in a place where there are hundreds of thousands of other travelers who would stop by given the easy opportunity.

Washington, DC is the nation's capital and a huge, international tourist destination. Irvine, California, is a distant suburb of Los Angeles with 215,000 people. Not much of a showcase.

Even in West Potomac Park, with the Washington Monument peeking over the trees on one end, and the Jefferson Memorial rotunda on the other, it was still clear where you were.

Not any more. Moving the Decathlon around has some merit, but the new location is a true shame. Few think of sustainability when they think about Orange County.

Erik Weber has been living car-free in the District since 2009. Hailing from the home of the nation's first Urban Growth Boundary, Erik has been interested in transit since spending summers in Germany as a kid where he rode as many buses, trains and streetcars as he could find. Views expressed here are Erik's alone. 

Comments

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Irvine is a lot of things, but it is defiantly not isolated. Irvine is smack dab in the middle of Orange County, population 3,010,232. FWIW, I would say Irvine is the equivalent to Reston is to here. The event is location right at the intersection of the two most heavily traveled freeways in the SoCal (405 &5) and adjacent to the Irvine Metrolink Station with trains from LA, SD and Inland Empire. Also, this same location that held the annual El Toro Air show, the last show drew over 2 million people. Yes Irvine is suburban hell, but people are there.

by RJ on Jan 31, 2012 4:08 pm • linkreport

While I agree that the Solar Decathlon is an important asset for DC and the National Mall and should've stayed here, I think you're being a little hard on the Orange County Great Park, the Decathlon's new site.

It's being built on a decommissioned Marine Corps air field and will cover 1,347 acres, making it one of the largest "urban" parks in the country (Orange County does have 3m residents, after all). The design for the park, though it's being revised, has been lauded for its reuse of the old runways and recreation of the natural environment. We're not talking about a high school ballfield, here. This is a pretty serious public works project, and one with "green" credentials to boot.

The Solar Decathlon should stay in DC, but if it had to go anywhere in the country, I can understand why they picked the Orange County Great Park.

by dan reed! on Jan 31, 2012 4:11 pm • linkreport

Whether Irvine is a worthy spot or not really isn't the point.

The Mall is a very worthy spot, and these guys essentially got kicked out.

by Alex B. on Jan 31, 2012 4:14 pm • linkreport

Um, isn't it illegal to camp on DC NPS property? I thought that is why the Occupy people are getting kicked out.

by charlie on Jan 31, 2012 4:31 pm • linkreport

The elephant in the room here is the sunny climate in southern California! the last two Solar Decathalons here in DC were beset with pretty heavy rains, overcast and clouds. I remember reading that the amount of energy generated by some of the houses was extremely low compared to what could have been with guaranteed sunny weather. Having it here simply gave the naysayers a chance to scoff at the perceived unreliability of solar power. I think it will be a better fit in a sunnier location.

by MrTinDC on Jan 31, 2012 4:35 pm • linkreport

I'll also add that for "real-world" testing of solar power in a residential setting, DC is more "typical" of most of the US than is Southern California. In September it can be warm, sticky, rainy and overcast in DC--just like it was last year during the event. It puts a real strain on these buildings to maintain temperature and humidity comfort levels to what most Americans expect.

by Paulus on Jan 31, 2012 4:36 pm • linkreport

I will miss it, but I don't have a problem with it being shown in other parts of the country. Yes, its great to see the work that the students did and all the innovations, but in the end it was disappointing because it really just amounted to house porn. There is very little chance that anything like any of those houses could be built anywhere within 50 miles of DC unless you are filthy rich. For the same reason, I let my Dwell subscription lapse. I'd love someday to live in a modern-design, energy-efficient SFH detached house, but I've pretty much given up on that fantasy. At least let someone else in some other part of the country enjoy the fantasy for awhile- where it might actually be more feasible that they could build something like it.

by spookiness on Jan 31, 2012 4:36 pm • linkreport

How many people came into DC solely for the Solar Decathlon? How many hotel rooms did it generate? I bet the student participants probably doubled (or quadrupled up), how many restaurant dinners?

Not many. So it really is no loss to the city. Aside from some very minor "civic pride" the event had absolutely no impact whatsoever on the city, so I am glad the city did nothing to try and save it.

As for the event itself. Who cares. The houses the students built were so far from any form of reality that they might as well have building structures for Moonbase Gingrich (8 years away!). A real trade show of actual manufacturers of low impact building materials at the convention center would bring revenue into the city and actually showcase products that can be used today to make the world the better place.

Its like the concept cars (some even solar!) they drag out every year at the auto show (which by the way is a money-maker for the city), nice to gawk at, but you aren't going to ever see one on the road.

by dcdriver on Jan 31, 2012 6:15 pm • linkreport

Sorry, but this isn't nearly as earth-shattering a tragedy as the author makes it out to be. West Potomac Park gets plenty of love at other times of the year. With the addition of the MLK memorial, more people will make the walk around the "far" side of the Tidal Basin to see the MLK and FDR memorials. Let's also not forget the throngs of tourists who come to look at the Cherry Blossoms each year. As for other multi-day events that take place on the Mall, let's not forget about the Smithsonian Folk Life festival, which also hosts temporary structures for prolonged periods of time. Reading this story, you get the impression that the Mall will become a barren landscape and the solar industry will collapse because the Solar Decathlon is finally being held somewhere sunny for once.

by Teyo on Jan 31, 2012 10:26 pm • linkreport

NPS has better things to do with electricity. Like tasing people.

by TGEOA on Feb 1, 2012 8:31 am • linkreport

It's good to give the Mall a break from overuse now and then. It gets plenty of big crowd events, with trailers and security fences all over the green space, and the Inaugural next year will stress it again. While RFK is still around, why not consider moving some events like the Solar Decathalon to its large parking lots, which are Metro accessible?

by Bob on Feb 1, 2012 9:21 am • linkreport

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