Solar-powered White House no longer a 'kooky' idea

Nearly 30 years after President Ronald Reagan dismantled his predecessor's solar panels, the White House is once again going green.

Yesterday's announcement that the Department of Energy will install solar panels at the White House by early next year immediately set off comparisons between President Obama and Jimmy Carter, the one-term president who in 1979 first brought solar energy to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

But political analysts said this time is different. The past three decades, many noted, have seen both serious environmental disasters and the revolutionizing of the renewable energy industry. The country might just be ready for a solar White House.

"Back in the '70s, solar panels were pretty exotic things," said Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "They're not anymore."

"It's not like it's going to be seen as some kooky, far-out, symbolic thing, even if it is a symbolic thing," he said. "It's no longer kooky and far-out."


Unlike Carter's solar panels, which Reagan removed in 1986, Obama's will provide electricity as well as hot water. Carter's did only the latter. According to the Department of Energy, water heating can account for 14 to 25 percent of household energy use.

The White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy estimated that the solar system would produce roughly 19,700 kilowatt-hours per year in electricity. Using the commercial energy rates for the Washington, D.C., area, the system would translate into a utility savings of about $2,300 a year.

Citing security reasons, the administration declined to reveal the overall White House energy use figures. It also did not say how much the installation will cost.

A system long overdue

Less than a month ago Bill McKibben, environmentalist and co-founder of 350.org, led a campaign to pressure the Obama administration to bring solar energy back to the White House. The White House seemed to have rejected the idea.

"They were completely poker-faced," McKibben recalled. He praised the announcement, though, and said now was a good time to push clean energy symbols.

"Would we rather have a climate bill?" said McKibben. "Yes. But in the current political matrix, no one thinks we're getting a climate bill so at least this is a symbolic step," he said. And, "given the address, it's not completely 'symbolic.'"

One partner in McKibben's campaign was Sungevity, a California-based solar power company that offered to install solar panels in the White House for free. The company's CEO Andrew Birch described the move as far more than symbolism.

"This is not about Carter and another president doing solar; it's about the fact that solar is able to save customers money," Birch said. To make the project worthwhile, he said, the panels should supply at least 50 percent to the White House energy usage.

"President Obama has a sense of urgency of the energy problem," said C. Julian Chen, physicist and adjunct professor at Columbia University. Chen helped facilitate the donation of a Carter-era solar panel to the Solar Science and Technology Museum in China.

Chen said he knew Obama would install the solar panel in the face of criticism and negative associations with Carter because he appointed Steven Chu as his energy secretary. He said Obama's move spoke to issues of the economy and global competitiveness.

The energy problems that trouble other large economies, such as Japan, China and India, Chen said, have made them far more serious about pursuing alternative energy than the United States. "For many many decades, the United States was the absolute leader of renewable energy applications," Chen said. Then we let our position slip. Chen added: "It's time to take it back."

Conservatives, meanwhile, are having a field day with the announcement. The Heritage Foundation blogged that Obama is "channeling his inner Jimmy Carter again." The conservative think tank also argued the White House energy bills will actually be higher than they might if the White House had chosen to go with natural gas.

Richard Caperton, an energy analyst for the Center for American Progress, said that, given everything else Democrats are facing this year, he believed Republican criticism would not last long.

If Obama uses the solar panel announcement appropriately, Caperton said, and encourages others to install solar panels, he can "show that the industry leads to job creation."

"It's a bigger issue about using clean energy jobs to revitalize the economy," he said. "To lampoon the president because this was something that Carter did, even though it's a cost-effective, energy-efficient thing you can do for your house, I just don't buy that."

Ornstein, of the American Enterprise Institute, said the solar panels would ultimately be "a net plus for the White House but not a huge deal" in the midterm elections coming up next month. In the meantime, he said, it could help Obama repair his relationship with environmental groups after failing to get a climate change bill passed this year.

Ultimately, he said, "The world has changed enough since the 1970s."

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