Rays Redux: After 30 Years, White House Once Again Amps Up for Solar Power


The White House is going solar (again). Two weeks ago, Nancy Sutley, chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, and Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced at a “GreenGov” symposium plans to install solar panels and a solar hot water heater on the roof of the executive residence next spring. This, they say, is “a project that demonstrates American solar technologies are available, reliable, and ready for installation in homes throughout the country.” Nice. But while the Obama administration’s promotion and support of alternative energy is encouraging, if not exactly aggressive, I’m reading these greening of the White House stories and am not sure whether to be encouraged or depressed. To be sure, this solar panel installation is a good thing. Likewise, it was a good thing four presidencies and three decades ago – when we did it the first time.

Maybe it’s because we’re staring down the barrel, so to speak, of a 1994 redo; a tragic, almost identical backslide to the one that took place on the Hill in the midterms of 15-plus years ago. With this history repeating itself right now, the idea of traction on issues like solar power seems so fleeting. To wit, I bring you Jimmy Carter, who installed similar panels on the mansion to much fanfare in 1979.

It was a move supporting his energy policy, which he discussed in a famous televised speech a few years prior: “Because we are now running out of gas and oil, we must prepare quickly for a third change, to strict conservation and to the use of coal and permanent renewable energy sources, like solar power.” he told us. “It is a problem we will not solve in the next few years, and it is likely to get progressively worse through the rest of this century.”

Ronald Reagan’s ascendancy put an end to that nonsense – immediately and completely. “The budget for the [Solar Energy Research] Institute – which President Jimmy Carter had created to spearhead solar innovation – was slashed [under Reagan] from $124 million in 1980 to $59 million in 1982. Scientists who had left tenured university jobs to work [on the project] were given two weeks’ notice and no severance pay,” Arthur Allen wrote in Mother Jones back in 2000, just months before another Big Oil president would take office. “By the end of 1985, when Congress and the administration allowed tax credits for solar homes to lapse, the dream of a solar era had faded”¦ Solar water heating went from a billion-dollar industry to peanuts overnight; thousands of sun-minded businesses went bankrupt.”

In 1986, when work was done to fix a leaky roof, President Reagan took down the panels. “By ripping the solar thermal (aka solar hot water) panels off the White House roof in the mid 80s to make a “˜statement’ against alternative energy – and for oil – Reagan was instrumental in killing the U.S. solar thermal industry,” says Lisa Margonelli, Director of the Energy Productivity Initiative at the New America Foundation. Sadly, she also informs us that the Virginia company that made the White House panels was out of business by 1991.

So here we are again, more than a quarter of century later, and Obama’s repeat of Carter’s gesture leaves us to wonder where we would be today “if only.” Think about 30 years of intensive, subsidized investment in solar power – or wind, for that matter. How different would our world be today? I’m not just talking about global warming and environmental issues here. I’m talking about jobs. I’m talking about geopolitics. I’m talking about war and peace.

Ironically, as recent as last month, in an effort to avoid comparison to the ill-fated, one-term Carter administration, the Obama White House looked like it was about to balk at installing the panels. So the turnaround (albeit symbolic) this close to election time does indeed show some alternative energy chops.

I hope they’ll still be there in 2015.

Image: Beverly & Pack

Scott Adelson

Scott Adelson is EcoSalon's Senior Editor of HyperKulture, a monthly column that explores opening cultural doors to initiate personal change. He is also the author of InPRINT, which reviews and discusses books, new and old. You can reach him at scott@adelson.org.