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Killing or Creating The Future: Solar’s three act drama on the Mall

September 28th, 2011 · No Comments

A drama is playing out at two ends of the National Mall … with a question mark between them.

One act is receiving massive news attention while the intermission and other act rests in obscurity for most Americans.

The center piece, almost like an intermission, is uncertain and perhaps cloudy about the finale.

One act focuses on destroying clean energy, delighting in the truthiness-laden idea that 19th century innovations of burning fossil fuels to power society somehow represents a legitimate basis for a prosperous 21st century. The intermission sends, it seems, mixed signals and hesitancy. The other act demonstrates, tangibly, that energy efficiency and renewable energy can cost-effectively provide very comfortable (and, well, even luxurious) living conditions.

One Act is the Congressional show trial of Solyndra, with a Republican pile-on seeking to score points against the Obama Administration and to destroy clean energy programs … a pile on and passion unseen in their words about oil pipeline spills or coal mining or chemical emissions or … Whatever the truth of Solyndra’s management competency and actions, one company’s failure does not disprove the ability to generate power cleanly nor does it disprove the scientific basis for understanding that humanity is driving change in the climate system.

The intermission is the continuing uncertainty about when — if ever — solar panels will go on the White House roof. A White House solar installation that the Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, promised a year ago would be put up before the end of spring 2011.

On the other end of the Mall, in a form of exile at West Potomac Park (by the FDR Memorial) (rather than its traditional location on the Mall between Congress and the Washington Memorial), The Solar Decathlon brings together 19 university teams from around the world with (extremely attractive) energy efficient, solar-powered homes. These houses and, not least of all, the enthusiastic and knowledgeable confidence of the university teams provide a vision of attractive, cost-effective climate-friendly housing (and living) available today.

While Assembly team with the complete Living Light house members of Congress are raising h-ll about the Solyndra bankruptcy along with many who are forgetting that they once touted Solyndra as the future, just a little distance away, Solandra technology is powering an absolutely gorgeous home available for public visit through 2 October.

Two ends of the Mall.

At one end, a science-denying vision looking back to the 19th century for inspiration to destroy the 21st century.

On the other end of the Mall, tangible examples of the opportunity for Moving the Planet to something better.

And, in between them, continuing uncertainty as to prospects for solar power on America’s house.

The contrast between the two acts is striking with the intervening uncertainty a poignant sign about our uncertain prospects for moving forward to something better.

We have heard enough of Solyndra and not enough from the other end of the Mall.

The Solar Decathlon

One of the nation’s most important (and sadly too little discussed) intercollegiate competitions is now open in Washington, DC: the biennial Solar Decathlon. For two weeks, 19 university teams from around the globe will compete across ten categories (thus, “decathlon”) that show the house works (can they get household chores and tasks done, like washing dishes and cooking dinner), measured performance items (how much electricity does the house produce), and perception items that can’t be tangibly measured (like aesthetic design quality). The Solar Decathlon is awaited by many, including this author, with much anticipation and baited breath.

After having visited multiple times during construction, some things of interest (to me … at least).

The Solar Decathlon is a serious competition.

The Solar Decathlon has truly transformed. A decade ago, it took only a few moments to sort out which teams would be on top and which weren’t in the same caliber. Even just two years ago, while every single house had elements meriting praise, sorting “top” from “bottom” wasn’t that difficult. (My ‘top five’ prediction, in terms of team composition, was off by one in 2009 as I expected the Spanish team to compete with the German team for #1 rather than placing 14th …) This year, looking at the teams and having visited the site, I believe that the judges (happily) face much more difficult challenges in ‘juried’ elements and can’t predict how the teams will sort out in measured performance. This competition is wide open (currently Maryland slightly ahead of Purdue … standings) with what look to be 19 tremendous houses and teams now open to the public.

Marketable Solar Homes.

Related to the first bullet, it is easy to see every single one of these homes commercialized. Every single one looks to be (very) livable, attractive homes that fit some form of market niche. Some are amazing ‘beach’ vacation homes (Maryland (on sale — not hard to imagine nestled up to the Chesapeake Bay), New Zealand (already sold to someone who will use it for a weekend/beach house)). Some could drop into suburban America and receive easy acceptance (Purdue). Some fit well into denser urban areas (Tidewater, New York, potential SCI-ARCH/CALTECH CHIP), some look like excellent post-disaster options for quality-long term housing (Illinois), etc … This has not necessarily been true, despite team aspirations otherwise, in the past. The 2011 Solar Decathlon’s emphasize on affordability hopefully has driven the teams to truly cost-sensible solutions. If so, might this be the Solar Decathlon where a team emerges (or teams emerge) with a meaningful path toward producing large numbers of their house (or derivatives of it)?

The Solar Decathlon Appeals to All Ages.

The Solar Decathlon, in part, provides an exciting vision for a path toward a sustainable and prosperous climate-friendly future. This excitement is shared, in my experience, by the vast majority who get there — of all ages. As a window on this, my seven-year old chose to watch the team videos (rather than asking to watch TV). And, she watched them … every single one … and when my better 95+% came in, my daughter had team videos that she wanted to show her mother, highlighting specific features that she thought her mom would love. And, well, “beautiful … can we buy that … that is really cool …” were the types of phrases coming out of her mouth, in wonder, in over an hour of watching (not all at once). And, well, my ten-year old son ended up doing much the same thing the next morning. And, they can’t wait to visit The Solar Decathlon to see the homes. As a parent, this joy, wonder, attention to detail, and intellectual interest (more my son) were a real pleasure to experience. As someone concerned about our energy reality and seeking to help foster a better path forward, this youthful passion and enthusiasm was an encouraging note.

Again, Bright Rays of Sunshine Hit DC: A preview of The Solar Decathlon Provides an overview of each of the 19 teams along with initial perspectives on the 2011 Solar Decathlon and each house. This can serve as a planning guide for a highly recommended visit to The Solar Decathlon.

As people gathered and acted globally, combined for Moving [our] Planet toward a reality-based path for mitigating climate chaos (and, sadly, for adaptation to dealing with the climate catastrophes that we cannot prevent — as they are already occurring), we need to consider paths forward and desired end states. And, we need to give voice and visibility to tangible examples of those better paths and better visions like The Solar Decathlon and the decathletes provide.

The White House could do its share by highlighting the Solar Decathlon and moving from rhetoric to reality about solar on The White House roof.

NOTE: Bright Rays of Sunshine Hit DC: A preview of The Solar Decathlon Provides an overview of each of the 19 teams along with initial perspectives on the 2011 Solar Decathlon and each house (of which I was able to visit 13 prior to the Decathlon’s opening yesterday). For a discussion of the UT house, see A Solyndra showcase in Washington, DC.

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Tags: Energy · political symbols · politics · President Barack Obama · solar · solar decathlon · Solar Energy