Solar energy making a return to White House

By Juliet Eilperin
Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The White House is going solar after all - a home improvement that carries modest energy benefits but much larger symbolic importance.

It isn't the first time the White House has used solar energy. President Jimmy Carter put 32 solar panels on the roof in the late 1970s, but President Ronald Reagan removed them in 1986. Two grass-roots campaigns have recently been lobbying President Obama to restore them as a sign of his commitment to renewable energy.

The roof of the White House residence will get solar panels and a solar water heater, Energy Secretary Steven Chu and the White House Council on Environmental Quality's chair, Nancy Sutley, announced Tuesday.

"This project reflects President Obama's strong commitment to U.S. leadership in solar energy and the jobs it will create here at home," Chu said. "Deploying solar energy technologies across the country will help America lead the global economy for years to come."

A campaign launched by Oakland, Calif.-based Sungevity called Solar on the White House and another by founder Bill McKibben tried to get Obama to reinstall solar panels.

"The White House did the right thing, and for the right reasons: They listened to the Americans who asked for solar on their roof, and they listened to the scientists and engineers who told them this is the path to the future," McKibben said in a statement.

"If it has anything like the effect of the White House garden, it could be a trigger for a wave of solar installations across the country and around the world," he said.

Of course, Obama is a ways behind the Maldives president, Mohamed Nasheed, who on Thursday will put the final touches on a solar photovoltaic system on his official residence. The low-lying group of atolls in the Indian Ocean is vulnerable to sea-level rise, and Nasheed has emerged as one of the developing world's most vocal proponents of curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Nasheed has pledged to make the Maldives carbon-neutral by 2020.

Sungevity founder Danny Kennedy, whose company designed and is donating the $30,000, 48-panel solar roof system for the Maldives presidential residence, said the system will initially provide half of the residence's power and will save the Maldives $300,000 over its expected 25 years of operation.

A White House official said the solar panels for its project - expected to be between 20 and 50 panels - will be chosen through a competitive process.

No word yet on whether Obama will reprise Carter's 1979 speech when the solar panels are actually installed. Back then - in the midst of a national energy crisis - Carter optimistically predicted:

"In the year 2000 this solar water heater behind me will still be here supplying cheap, efficient energy. 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 the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people."

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