Solar panels here to stay atop White House roof

(Haraz N. Ghanbari - AP)

The White House has completed installing solar panels on the First Family's residence, a process it started back in 2010.

President Obama, who will announce the project's completion as part of a broader push to expand solar energy deployment in the private and public sectors, took up the gauntlet nearly three decades after Ronald Reagan dismantled the panels Jimmy Carter had put on the roof.

The president will also announce a combination of commercial and federal pledges, including a commitment by Wal-Mart to double the number of solar projects it will have onsite at its stores and distribution centers by 2020. The Energy Department will issue two new efficiency rules Friday, cutting the energy consumption of new electric motors and walk-in coolers and freezers, and will launch a training programs at community colleges across the country to help 50,000 workers to enter the solar industry by 2020.

The administration will also devote $2 billion to improving energy efficiency at federal buildings by 2016, and approve the industry’s latest commercial building energy code -- which is 8.5 percent more efficient. Taken together, the initiatives translate into more than 850 megawatts of solar power and energy efficiency investments in more than 1 billion square feet of buildings.

Joshua Freed, who directs the clean energy program at the centrist think tank Third Way, said Friday's announcements are "an excellent example" of the administration pursuing "a pragmatic approach of taking on every small and medium-sized opportunity the federal government can take to accelerate the deployment of clean energy."

Freed noted that one of the policies Obama will highlight -- upcoming guidance from the Internal Revenue Service clarifying that Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) can be used so a group of investors can pool their funds to pay for solar projects "could open up a significant new stream of affordable capital as solar’s booming."

In the White House video, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said putting solar panels on the residence "are a really important message, that solar is here. We are doing it, we can do a lot more."

"I am very bullish on the future of solar energy as a key part of our clean energy future," he adds.

The administration only provided a few details about the new project, saying every component was made in America and it would pay for itself in energy savings over the next eight years. At the time of the 2010 announcement, then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu and White House Council on Environmental Quality Chairwoman Nancy Sutley said the administration would conduct a competitive bidding process to buy between 20 and 50 solar panels.

In an e-mail, White House spokesman Matt Lehrich described the installation as "part of an energy retrofit that will improve the overall energy efficiency of the building.  The retrofit includes the installation of energy-saving equipment such as updated building controls and variable speed fans, as well as 6.3 kilowatts of solar generation."

The administration has not disclosed the exact location of the panels, though White House usher James Doherty describes the expanse in the video as the "typical size" for the average American home.

"Being the White House we do have some security concerns. We can’t cover the entire roof with panels, though that would be good from an energy savings standpoint," he says, and laughs.

Juliet Eilperin is a White House correspondent for The Washington Post, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
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