The US Department of Energy celebrated eco-innovation with an international competition, praising host city Colorado for environmental advocacy — even as it proposes rolling back federal support for renewables.
The US government's position on climate change has many around the world worried. The Environmental Protection Agency has moved to reverse emissions-reduction legislation , and has even been accused of censoring its own scientists, while the Department of Energy (DOE) has mooted an end to renewables subsidies — and even a boost in support for fossil fuels and nuclear.
But a DOE-supported competition promoting sustainable design suggests a brighter future — and highlights that the Trump administration's resistance to green innovation is often odds with market forces and consumer demand.
Student teams from around the world designed and built fully functioning energy-efficient homes at their universities, which were then dismantled, shipped, and installed at the US Solar Decathlon competition site in Denver, Colorado.
More than 100,000 people visited the resulting exhibition — a solar-powered community with futuristic details such as showerheads that change color to warn of excessive water use, rain gutters that double as mini gardens, and walls insulated with wool.
Colorado: Green pioneer
It was no accident the DOE chose Colorado as the location for the 2017 Solar Decathlon. The state is a leader in conservation and environmental research, and has a booming green innovation economy.
"We believe in solar," one Colorado resident visiting the exhibition told DW. "We have solar and electric cars and we just want to see what the next generation is."
Colorado is also among the US states that vowed to honor the Paris Agreement on climate change after President Donald Trump announced he would pull the country out of the global deal.
Colorado's emissions laws are stricter the federal standards — but that hasn't damaged its energy sector, partly because it supports green innovation.
"Our total cost of energy to consumers is one of the lowest in the entire nation. In many ways our local governments are leading this charge," Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper said, announcing the state's loyalty to the Paris Agreement.
Federal subsidies have played a key role in Colorado's renewable energy success. Now, it's unclear how long those subsidies will last.
Renewables' market success
In October, US Energy Secretary Rick Perry even proposed the US government begin to increase subsidies for coal and nuclear energy to ensure renewables don't have too much of an advantage.
"We subsidize a lot of different energy sources," Perry said. "We subsidize wind energy. We subsidize ethanol. We subsidize solar. We subsidize oil and gas... and so the question is, how do you make it as fair as you can?"
But with renewables increasingly undercutting fossil power on the market, the DOE's Solar Decathlon director Linda Silverman said government support for green energy may no longer be necessary.
"The idea of subsidizing renewable energy was even more important years ago when the cost of renewable energy was so high," Silverman said at the competition. "What the DOE works on is improving performance and reducing costs of technology, and we have been really successful."
"I guess what we ultimately hope for is that there's just a level playing field for all energy technologies and that they all should be competing head-to-head," she added.
The US government says the renewable energy industry is growing faster than any other type of power generation in the country, with solar installations increasing by 100 percent in 2016.
And as far as green innovation goes, Solar Decathlon competitors say climate change impacts will drive consumer demand for their designs — which respond to the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, drought, urbanization, and air-quality concerns.
Designing for climate resilience
The University of Alabama team's Surviv(AL) house features a safe-room that can withstand the kind of extreme weather parts of the US have experienced in recent months. "It is designed to withstand a four-foot long section of lumber coming at it at 100 miles per hour," designer Daniel Reeves said. "It's very strong material that will keep you safe."
Better still, it costs just $1,000 to build.
Price was also a concern for the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Denver, which collaborated on a stackable home allowing residents to purchase smaller lots — an advantage in both Colorado and California, where urbanization is driving up the cost of real estate. The design impressed judges and came third in the competition.
The University of California Davis team created a home from "drought wood" that conserves water – and increasingly scarce resource in the US. And the Northwestern University team's design for older residents had walls and windows that provide clean indoor air for residents concerned about the health impacts of living in areas of the US with poor air quality.
First prize ultimately went to the Swiss team for its NeighborHub project, designed to support community activities like shared meals and bike repair workshops. Encouraging social contact was also an aim of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas team's design for solar-powered, water-conserving housing for the elderly, which took second place.
Public opinion to drive policy?
Margaux Peltier of the winning Swiss team told DW she's proud to have made a mark on the world of environmental design.
"It's really important to believe in renewable energy and to support it, and I think everyone is really proud to have been supported by the US government," she said. "It's really important, especially in the days of climate change."
How much support renewables will get from the US government in the coming years remains to be seen. But there's hope among the new generation of eco-designers that public pressure will direct politicians toward a green future.
"I think what makes the US one of the greatest countries in the world is that the government reacts to what the people think is right — and so the more we show the public what [energy-efficient innovation] can do, the more I think the politicians will want to keep supporting it," Nigerian-born Gabriel Nnamdi Okafor of the University of Alabama team told DW.