When Elisabeth Neigert decided to help lead a group of students in the international Solar Decathlon competition, she never expected it would involve lobbying Congress and blogging for the Huffington Post.
This winter, Neigert, a former Lawrence resident and KU graduate, found herself at the center of a political campaign to keep the international student competition on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
The Solar Decathlon is a biennial event sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy that challenges 20 collegiate teams to design, build and operate a home that can function entirely on solar energy. The home also has to be affordable, energy efficient, attractive and comfortable.
In late September, the teams will have seven days to assemble the homes in the National Mall.
Neigert, who was visiting her parents, Linda and Klaus Neigert, in Lawrence last weekend, moved to Los Angeles to obtain a master’s degree in architecture from the Southern California Institute of Architecture. She teamed up with classmate Reed Finlay and students from California Institute of Technology to create a team for the 2011 Solar Decathlon.
The team has designed a 740-square-foot home in the shape of a hexagon. One of the most innovative features of the home is placing the insulation outside of the interior walls and then covering that insulation with a vinyl skin. The technique has the home looking like a giant white mattress.
Each team, which includes 16 teams from the United States and four from around the world, is given $100,000 from the DOE to use as seed money. The rest, which in the case of Neigert’s project will be about $1.15 million, has to be raised by the team. Much of it is covered with donation of materials and supplies.
While Neigert has spent the past 18 months managing the project, the past two month were dedicated to organizing opposition against relocating the competition away from D.C.’s National Mall.
In January, the teams learned that federal officials had moved the event off of the National Mall, citing concerns of damaged grass. Officials were considering the National Harbor or the parking lot of Robert F. Kennedy Stadium instead.
With all the homes using solar energy, site location was key to the design process, Neigert said. Not to mention, the National Mall is a prime location for attracting thousands of people and educating them about the use of green technology in the home.
“Our government called us to action, we came, worked on it for two years and then they pulled the rug from underneath us,” Neigert said.
Over the next few weeks, Neigert went about organizing students to contact senators and congressmen, connecting with national media outlets and posting a video to YouTube.
Her efforts paid off and a compromise was struck allowing the competition to go on the National Mall’s West Potomac Park just south of the new Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial.
While the competition is still six months away, Neigert has already learned much.
“It was eye-opening about how politics work,” Neigert said.