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Bring solar power back to the White House

By Bill McKibben
Friday, September 10, 2010; A25

A few of us have spent the past week carefully transporting a relic of American history down the East Coast, trying to return it to the White House, where it belongs.

It's not a painting spirited from the Lincoln Bedroom or an antique sideboard stolen from the Roosevelt Room by some long-ago servant. No, this relic comes from the somewhat more prosaic Carter roof. It's a solar panel, one of a large array installed on top of the White House in June 1979.

When he dedicated the panels, President Jimmy Carter made a prophecy that, like many oracles, came true in unexpected fashion -- in fact, nothing better illustrates both why the world is heating and why the American economy is falling behind its competitors.

"In the year 2000 this solar water heater behind me will still be here supplying cheap, efficient energy," he said. "A generation from now this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it can be just a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people."

What happened?

-- By 2000, the panels were long gone from the White House, taken down during the Reagan administration. But they were indeed still producing hot water, on the cafeteria roof of Unity College in central Maine.

-- Some have indeed become museum pieces -- one is at the Carter Library and another was donated this year by Unity to Huang Ming, the entrepreneur whose Himin Solar has become the world's preeminent supplier of solar hot water. It is in the gallery at his enormous Sun-Moon Mansion complex, a few hours south of Beijing.

-- The technology has indeed become part of a great and exciting adventure. Just not for the American people. Instead, by Huang's estimate, 250 million Chinese shower with hot water from rooftop panels. There are entire cities where essentially every building heats its water with the sun. Which explains why China leads the world in installed renewable capacity.

Meanwhile, in America, the solar industry essentially vanished after Reagan stopped supporting it with federal dollars. Less than 1 percent of Americans heat their water with the sun, a number not expected to rise very quickly now that the Senate has punted on even the modest climate legislation passed by the House.

To counter this situation, we're carrying the panel back to the White House and asking President Obama to put it back on the roof, alongside a full array of new photovoltaic and hot-water panels. Obama has drawn much of the blame for the failure of the climate legislation, which he didn't push aggressively; this is a chance to make at least symbolic amends. Thus far, however, we have not gotten a firm response from the administration, even though other world leaders have pledged to join a Global Work Party on Oct. 10 (10-10-10). Mohamed Nasheed, president of the Maldive Islands, for instance, will be on the roof of his official residence bolting down panels donated by the American company Sungevity.

Clearly, a solar panel on the White House roof won't solve climate change -- and we'd rather have strong presidential leadership on energy transformation. But given the political scene, this may be as good as we'll get for the moment.

The Bush administration, in fact, created an opening -- it brought solar energy back to the White House, with some photovoltaic panels on a maintenance shed and a small water heating system for the "presidential spa and cabana." But the Bush officials purposely did it without fanfare, and fanfare is exactly what we need. Those panels belong on the roof, where every visitor can see them.

A memo in the Carter Library, written by domestic policy adviser Stuart Eizenstat in May 1978, lays out the case with prescient power: "It would provide a symbol of commitment that is understandable to all Americans, and would enable you to recapture the initiative in the solar energy area. . . . The White House experience will show, to the great number of interested but skeptical Americans, that solar energy is clean, practical, and worth the long-term investment." He's still right -- when Michelle Obama planted a garden on the White House lawn, it helped boost seed sales 30 percent in the next year.

We wasted three decades when, across America, we could have been using the sun's power instead of coal to heat our water. We wasted our technological lead in the most important industry of the future and handed it to countries like China. As scientists tell us with increasing fervor, we're laying waste to the planet's climate. Now is the moment to go back to the future.

Bill McKibben, founder of the global warming campaign 350.org, is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont and the author of "Earth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet."

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