Solar Panels on the White House? Not Quite Yet

A self-imposed deadline for installing solar panels on the White House roof, which the Obama administration announced last fall, has come and gone without the promised solar fixture seeing the light of day.  According to a public announcement made at a clean energy conference on October 5th, solar panels and a solar water heating system were supposed to be installed on the most prominent building in the US, sometime in spring of 2011.  However spring is now over and the White House remains solar panel-free.  Environmental activists say they are disappointed.

“We started our campaign to put solar panels back on the White House because it was a clear and simple way to push President Obama to show more leadership on the climate crisis,” said May Boeve of the international environmental group 350.org, in an email to supporters. 

350.org, which was co-founded by author and activist Bill McKibben to help build a global movement to stop climate change, contends the White House solar panels are symbolically important.  No one solar array, even on the White House, will do very much to stop global warming on its own.  But if the White House goes solar thousands of US households may be inspired to follow suit—just as First Lady Michelle Obama’s organic garden led to a wave of home gardens being planted across the country.

Putting solar panels on the White House is also symbolic for historic reasons.  The first White House solar system was installed decades ago by President Jimmy Carter, who was also making a major push to shift the US economy away from fossil fuels.  But when President Ronald Reagan took charge of the White House, he had the panels removed and also pulled the plug on clean energy incentive programs.  By re-solarizing the residence of the nation’s head of state, environmentalists hope President Obama will signal his intent to get serious about clean energy.

According to a White House press release the solar panel project is still in the works, but has been stalled by regulatory hurdles.  The White House, as a building of extreme historical and cultural importance, can’t just be retrofitted however the current occupants want.  But environmentalists worry the delay is as symbolically significant as installing the panels in the first place would be.  It suggests the Obama administration isn’t all that committed to clean energy—or at least hasn’t made it a top priority.

“When it comes to handouts for big polluters,” wrote 350.org co-coordinator Jamie Henn, “President Obama seems to have felt ‘the fierce urgency of now,’ but when it comes to climate, the best advocates can get is a ‘deliberative process.’”  It isn’t just the solar panels at issue: in the last several months the Obama administration has thrown its support behind increased coal mining in Wyoming and deepwater oil drilling off the nation’s coasts, and announced delays in rules to clean up dirty coal plants. 

Meanwhile the administration has yet to make the same kind of push for clean energy that it made for healthcare and Wall Street reform last year.  This has led environmental groups, which strongly supported Obama’s 2008 election campaign, to accuse the president of caving to entrenched fossil fuel interests.

Climate activists are determined not to let this slide.  In the last days of spring, more than 125,000 350.org supporters signed a letter to the president asking him to meet the deadline for installing solar power.  Hundreds of people called the White House to ask that the administration get serious about solar panels.  350.org is also gearing up for a massive day of action on September 24th.  On “Moving Planet Day,” people across the US and around the world will rally for the climate and urge world leaders to move beyond fossil fuels.

The task of putting solar panels on the White House roof may be delayed, but the national movement for clean energy and a stable climate goes on.  

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/tom_lohdan/4217661984/sizes/m/in/photostream/

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