The White House Gets Solar Panels (Again): Will America Follow Suit?

The White House Solar Panels

 A new construction project is underway at the White House, and it’s not a new bedroom for dignitaries or improvements to the bowling alley. It’s a fresh new set of solar panels. It’s unclear how much power the new array will actually produce, but for many, the act delivers more than electricity.

Despite the fact that it took Obama three years to fulfill his promise to restore the array, the seemingly small move is a big step, and says a lot about where we’re headed as a nation.

Nothing New Under The Sun

I often feel bad for former President Jimmy Carter. He’s always the butt of jokes, especially from conservatives, and criticized for his passive demeanor. Yet more than 30 years ago, Carter was championing solar power, and encouraging Americans to abandon fossil fuels for the promise of renewable energy. He walked the talk, putting 32 solar panels on the roof of the White House way back in 1979. What a different America–no, world–we’d be living in now if we’d only taken the hint and put our weight behind the solar energy industry back then.

But we didn’t. Instead, the oil lobby put its weight into our politicians, and in 1986, then-President Reagan had the panels removed. George Charles Szego, the engineer who persuaded Carter to install the solar panels, reportedly claimed that Reagan Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan “felt that the equipment was just a joke, and he had it taken down.”

Well, it wasn’t a joke. And now solar energy (along with wind and geothermal) represents one of the fastest-growing industries in the United States. Too bad we had to force the planet way over the C02 threshold and into human-accelerated climate change before we were willing to give it a chance.

Turning Up The Heat On Fossil Fuels

In 2010, President Obama pledged to install solar panels on his official residence as a sign of his commitment to renewable energy, and environmentalists were thrilled. According to the Washington Post, “at the time of the 2010 announcement, then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu and White House Council on Environmental Quality chair Nancy Sutley said the administration would conduct a competitive bidding process to buy between 20 and 50 solar panels.” The upgrade, “which will help demonstrate that historic buildings can incorporate solar energy and energy efficiency upgrades, is estimated to pay for itself in energy savings over the next eight years,” Sutley continued.

Now, several years later, the promise is bearing fruit. The Obama’s may not be touting it as an official signal that fossil fuels are on their way out, but there’s no denying it’s one of solar power’s biggest endorsements to date.

“No one should ever have taken down the panels Jimmy Carter put on the roof,” founder Bill McKibben said in an emailed press statement. “But it’s very good to know that once again the country’s most powerful address will be drawing some of that power from the sun.”

Pushing Americans to become more energy efficient has been a major focus of Obama’s Department of Energy, and there’s comfort to be found in an Administration that practices it what it preaches. But putting solar panels on the White House is the easy part. Changing deep-rooted policies that have favored fossil fuels for decades, that’s where the real work–and reward–is waiting.

Image: Francisco Diez