White House to go solar in 'clean energy' push

Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced plans to install solar panels on the White House roof today, kicking off a three-day federal symposium focused on targeting sustainability efforts throughout the federal government.

"Around the world, the White House is a symbol of freedom and democracy," Chu told an audience of federal employees. "It should also be a symbol of America's commitment to a clean energy future."

The Department of Energy aims to install solar panels and a solar hot water heater by the end of next spring as part of a demonstration project showcasing the availability and reliability of the country's solar technologies. In a press release, DOE officials emphasized the growing industry and the availability of tax credits for those who install panels.

The news comes less than a month after environmentalist Bill McKibben led a rally demanding that President Obama install solar panels and presenting White House officials with a solar panel from former President Carter's White House.

At the time, White House officials seemed to rebuff McKibben's pleas, releasing a vague statement about Obama's commitment to renewable energy. But today McKibben and other environmentalists praised federal officials for taking the symbolic step.


"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," said McKibben, the co-founder of the nonprofit "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."

The planned panels will convert sunlight directly to electricity, while the solar hot water heater will have a "solar collector" to heat water for the White House residence, according to the DOE press release. The department will immediately begin the competitive bidding process to select a company for the installations.

Nancy Sutley -- chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality -- joined Chu in making the announcement at the GreenGov Symposium. The news is "in keeping with our commitment to lead by example," she said.

Indeed, that was the stated purpose of the three-day symposium, which will feature panels and lectures on topics relating to clean water, sustainable buildings, climate and a half-dozen other government priorities. Lecture titles range from "Measuring Your Water Footprint" to "Case Studies in Greening the Supply Chain."

"Regardless of whether your job is every day to worry about sustainability in your agency ... the federal community at large cares about sustainability," Sutley said. "This symposium is about turning a vision into practice and engaging minds from inside and outside the federal community."

'Race to develop clean energy technologies'

The symposium marked the one-year anniversary of Obama's Executive Order 13514, which directed the federal government to lead by example and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Sutley, Chu, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and biomimicry expert Janine Benyus kicked off the event with speeches today at the Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University.

Chu's speech served as a primer on global warming and DOE's efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Armed with a PowerPoint presentation, he led the audience through the statistics showing rising sea levels and warming temperatures.

DOE has implemented several programs aimed at slowing that trend, he said -- from encouraging energy-efficient white roofs to decreasing the energy used for the government's data centers.

"We are in a race to develop clean energy technologies around the world," he said, citing China's efforts to pursue clean energy. "So the question is: As these countries move aggressively into this space to develop these new technologies ... will we be a leader in this race or will we be importing technologies from these other counties five to 10 years from now?"

Vilsack also focused on his agency's progress over the past year, highlighting a program that reconnects people with their food supply through community gardens. USDA, he said, aims to help the country adopt a new American culture that values consuming wisely, innovating widely and exporting more.

"I think you need to understand what is happening in this country," Vilsack said, "and that is that we are in the process -- in my opinion -- of redefining the American experience."

Benyus also struck an optimistic cord, expressing hope that sustainability goes "from being a checklist to becoming a culture."

"We as a people in the United States are capable of grand, sweeping, bold, mature ideas," Benyus said, showing the audience a photo of a protected wilderness. "I think that we can do the same sort of thing around sustainability."

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