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White House goes solar

By Juliet Eilperin
The White House is going solar after all.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu and White House Council on Environmental Quality chair Nancy Sutley announced Tuesday morning that the administration will install solar panels and a solar hot water heater on the roof of the White House residence as part of a broader DOE solar demonstration project.

"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 at the GreenGov symposium. "Deploying solar energy technologies across the country will help America lead the global economy for years to come."

The move comes in the wake of a grassroots campaign led by founder Bill McKibben to get Obama to reinstall solar panels then-President Jimmy Carter put on the White House in 1979. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan removed the panels and let federal renewable energy subsidies expire; several of the panels were donated to Unity College in the 1990s. McKibben brought some of the old panels down to the District last month as part of his group's "10/10/10 Global Work Party" on climate change, but at the time, the White House remained noncommittal on the matter.

"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."

Of course, Obama is simply following in the footsteps of the Republic of Maldives president Mohammed Nasheed, who is installing a solar photovoltaic system on his official residence on Thursday. As a low-lying Pacific island, the Maldives 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.

The Oakland-Calif.-based firm Sungevity has designed the solar roof system for the Maldives presidential residence and is donating it to the country, which aims to become the world's first carbon-neutral nation by 2020.

Back in Washington, a White House official said the solar panels for the residence will be chosen through a competitive process "based on a range of selection criteria, and will be evaluated based on the best value to the taxpayers."

No word yet on whether Obama will reprise Carter's 1979 speech when the solar panels actually make it up on the roof. 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."

By Juliet Eilperin  | October 5, 2010; 11:59 AM ET
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