Obama Challenged to Put Solar Panels Back on the White House

By: Nick Engelfried

September 3, 2010

Next week, a group of college students from Unity College in Maine will join environmental activist and author Bill McKibben on a three-day journey to the nation’s capital.  Their goal: convince President Obama to re-install solar panels on the White House roof.  Through leading by example at the White House, organizers of this “solar road trip” say the president can encourage the rest of the country to do what it takes to avert the worst effects of global warming.

Solar panels were first installed on the White House in 1979, by President Jimmy Carter.  Carter, whose administration also helped pass numerous initiatives to stimulate investment in renewable energy, encouraged all US residents to take simple steps that could save energy at home and reduce dependence on fossil fuels. 

In a now-famous incident, the solar panels were removed from the White House when President Ronald Reagan took office years later.  For the solar road trip, McKibben and student organizers with the climate activism group 350.org have retrieved one of Carter’s original panels from Unity College, and will take in person back to the White House.

“We’re challenging Obama to put solar back on the White House,” writes 350.org co-coordinator Jamie Henn.  “I mean, seriously, if we could do it 31 years ago when bell bottoms were in style, we should definitely be able to do it now.”

Climate activists aren’t just focused on the Obama administration, however.  In fact, 350.org has challenged heads of state from every country in the world to put solar panels on their place of residence in a symbolic move to fight global warming and encourage renewable energy.  The first head of state to respond was President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives, a low-lying island nation imminently threatened by rising sea levels.  Nasheed plans to install solar panels on October 10th of this year, as part of an international day of action for the climate.

Yet while momentum is building to put in solar panels in capital cities around the world, the push has taken on a special significance in the United States.  That’s because of the unique role the US plays in international climate politics; while most observers believe a US commitment to reducing greenhouse emissions is essential to a global climate deal, the United States Senate again failed to pass sweeping climate legislation this year. 

After starting out from Unity College next week in a bus powered by biodiesel, solar road trip participants will stop in Boston and New York City to hold events that draw attention to their initiative and highlight the need for nation-wide investments in renewable energy.  The activists hope that in putting solar panels back on the White house roof, President Obama will take up a more active role in weaning the country off fossil fuel dependence and reducing the threat of global warming. 

“Solar panels on the White House will remind every visitor to Washington that every roof in America should have solar panels for electricity and hot water on them,” said 350.org’s McKibben. “The President’s panels will do as much good as the wonderful organic garden that the First Lady planted on the South Lawn.”

Photo credit: Wayne National Forest

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