A Precedent for the President: Putting Solar Panels (Back) on the White House

It seems like a no-brainer, and back in 1979 it was. As a way to encourage Americans to look towards alternative energy sources, then-President Jimmy Carter made an example of his administration and had 32 solar panels installed atop the White House. The panels, Carter was sure, would be made to heat the Presidential water for years if not decades to come.

It was a momentous day: one many hoped would not be forgotten, and during the dedication ceremony, Carter projected that “In the year 2000 this solar water heater behind me, which is being dedicated today, will still be here supplying cheap, efficient energy.” But they didn’t…and still don’t. “A generation from now,” Carter’s address continued, “this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, and example of a road not taken or it can be just a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people.”

Hardly a decade after their initial introduction—during the Reagan administration—the 32-panels were dismantled and taken down from the rooftop. Going even further, Reagan effectively dissolved the research into such alternative energy sources by eliminating tax breaks for wind and solar technologies and refocusing the nation on the harsher and more polluting burning of fossil fuels. It was something of a fool’s errand, Reagan explained of solar energy, claiming the nation would be better served committing to something less controversial.

“The Department of Energy has a multibillion-dollar budget, in excess of $10 billion. It hasn’t produced a quart of oil or a lump of coal or anything else in the line of energy,” Reagan argued in a debate with Carter. And with that, the tiniest sliver of a solar age dipped back into darkness.

As for the panels themselves, well for the most part they had remained in the great storage bin in the sky—or rather, a federal warehouse building in Virginia. The years passed and the dust gathered until Peter Marbach took the journey from Maine to Virginia to gather what he could for his cafeteria building at Unity College in Maine. Marbach, who had just taken over as development director of the college was troubled with some hefty budget problems and was looking for a way to lessen the financial burden when he remembered the forgotten panels.

After some clever finagling and a letter to former President Carter, Marbach was able to purchase 16 of the panels for an administrative fee of $500. The other 16 panels, aside from the few that have found their way to museums around the world (sorry Carter), remain largely forgotten relics.

So what now? Looking to revamp the White House image, Obama prepared to bring in a second wave of solar panels to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. While speaking at the GreenGov Symposium in October of 2001, United States Secretary of Energy Steven Chu pledged that “The White House will lead by example.” Further stating, “I’m pleased to announce that by the end of this spring, there will be solar panels that convert sunlight to energy and a solar hot water heater on the roof of the White House.”

The goal was set as sometime during the springtime of 2011, and the deadline passed with no action. Despite decades of feet dragging at the White House, Americans are showing more and more their willingness to commit to alternative energy sources. As people look to the White House as a symbol of the nation, the Obama administration is in a great position to be a model for the nation—in much the same way that the White House organic garden already has been.

To urge the Obama administration to lead by example and install solar panels on the White House roof, lobby the President and sign the petition here.

 

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