The White House is going solar
By Juliet Eilperin
The White House is going solar after all -- and the decision has nothing to do with two independent lobbying campaigns aimed at putting solar panels back on the chief executive's residence, officials say.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu and White House Council on Environmental Quality chairwoman Nancy Sutley announced Tuesday morning that the administration will install solar panels and a solar water heater on the roof of the White House residence as part of a broader Department of Energy 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 two grass-roots campaigns -- one launched by the Oakland, Calif.,-based Sungevity in April, called "Solar on the White House" and another led by 350.org founder Bill McKibben. That group tried to get Obama to reinstall solar panels that President Jimmy Carter had 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 to Washington last month as part of his group's "10/10/10 Global Work Party" on climate change. But the White House remained non-committal.
"The White House did the right thing, and for the right reasons" McKibben said in a statement. "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. 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."
In an e-mail, Christine Glunz, spokeswoman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, referred to a press briefing that White House spokesman Robert Gibbs gave in February in which he said "there has been discussion of solar panels" on the White House. Gibbs quipped that when it came to other renewable projects, "I doubt a small wind turbine is in the offing."
"Obama Administration officials started discussions on putting solar on the White House shortly after the start of the administration," Glunz said. "This has nothing to do with any outside organization."
Of course, Obama may simply be following in the footsteps of Republic of Maldives President Mohammed Nasheed, who will put the final touches on a solar photovoltaic system on his official residence on Thursday. As a as a low-lying island in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives is vulnerable to rising sea levels, and Nasheed has emerged as one of the developing world's most vocal proponents of curbing greenhouse gas emissions. He has pledged to make his nation 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.
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."
Kennedy -- who personally pitched Obama on the idea of a solar roof in May and whose company will start installing solar panels on D.C area homes next spring -- said he intends to bid on the new White House project.
"We look forward to the first job in Washington being a very big one," Kennedy said in an interview from the Maldives, where he was beginning work on that installation.
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."
| October 5, 2010; 2:54 PM ET
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