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West wing 1979 solar panelsSymbols matter. When Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the White House in 1979, they weren’t today’s efficient electricity-generating PV panels (they produced only hot water) and the goal wasn’t to make 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue energy-independent. Nevertheless, during a historical period remembered for oil shocks and gas lines, this was a way of sending the message that changes were needed in America’s energy habits and that the President was ready to lead by example.

The symbolism was just as clear in 1986, when the Reagan White House removed those solar panels. Federal renewable energy tax credits had been rescinded, gas was cheap again, and U.S. energy goals had been refocused on maintaining access to the world’s oil—which is to say that they had essentially been militarized.

Pictures of the two occasions were and are worth about a billion barrels’ worth of words.

Today there is an effort under way to convince the current White House occupant-in-chief to use symbolism to underscore his intention to, in his own words, “seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels.” Oakland CA-based Sungevity has offered to donate and install a home solar system on the roof of the White House, and a “Globama” campaign (www.solaronthewhitehouse.com/) is being cheerfully waged to convince the Obamas that this is a good idea.

In 2009, Michelle Obama installed a White House garden; over the next year backyard gardens sprouted throughout the U.S. in such numbers that seed companies had a hard time keeping up. Of course, there were other influences at work (I recall hearing something about a recession happening then, not sure what that was all about). Nevertheless, a good and important example was set, and it benefitted the Obamas as much as anyone else: if you’re a politician it’s always good to be seen at the head of the parade rather than chasing it down the street.

For the United States, renewable energy needs to be the Parade of the Century. High-quality deposits of fossil fuels are depleting, forcing extraction industries to adopt ever-more environmentally ruinous methods of getting at deeper or poorer-quality resources (shale gas, deepwater oil, tar sands, lignite, and mountaintop-removal coal). This is already leading to steadily less-affordable and less-reliable energy. Meanwhile the burning of fossil fuels is turning Earth into a different planet from the one on which human civilization developed, and it’s not at all clear that civilization can maintain itself for long in the hotter, far more erratic climate that fossil fuels are producing. The only possible solutions are to use much less energy and to get what we use from non-fossil, ideally renewable, sources. But we don’t have a lot of time in which to make the transition.

In short, we need an enormous program of societal investment, redesign, and retooling; but to get that ball rolling, we need leadership, encouragement, examples—and symbols.

After the past couple of months of crude leakage in the Gulf of Mexico, during which the nation’s overwhelming reliance on oil has become a matter of inescapable concern for just about everyone, the President needs all the PR help he can get—and the nation needs some inspiration. There’s a cheap but useful way Mr. Obama could symbolically put himself at the head of the parade: Solarize the White House.

Lead, Mr. President. 

Post Carbon Institute is a partner in the Globama campaign. If you think it's a good idea to put solar panels back on the White House, please sign the petition

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6 comments

Solar Panels

From: Stan Dyer, Sep 3, 2010 07:06 AM

That would be a great way to show the country how serious the president is about energy independence, and would motivate many other people to follow suit. It would also stimulate the economy, since many solar panels are made in America.

From: Robin Datta, Jun 30, 2010 11:31 PM

Actually the goal should be a zero-energy or an energy-positive White House. Symbols are important.

Great idea...

From: jaggedben, Jun 30, 2010 09:56 PM

...although don't expect it to actually happen until the second term. Otherwise Obama will be hurt by comparisons to Carter as a one-term president. (Sad, but true.)

Really, someone in the solar industry should offer to do it at no cost to taxpayers. (SunRun, are you listening?)

Why Stop with PV?

From: Bill Hewitt, Jun 30, 2010 05:58 AM

Great initiative, but we should also push for ground source heat pumps and microwind for the White House, plus fuel cells or compressed air for energy storage and EVs for the entire White House fleet.

I have seen the future and it works. Lincoln Steffens may have been wrong, but the technology-based energy economy is the future from 2010. (http://climatechange.foreignpolicyblogs.com/)

A ROad

From: Mike Grenville, Jun 29, 2010 07:42 PM

http://www.roadnottaken.info/

n 1979, Jimmy Carter, in a visionary move, installed solar panels on the roof of the White House. This symbolic installation was taken down in 1986 during the Reagan presidency. In 1991, Unity College, an environmentally-minded centre of learning in Maine acquired the panels and later installed them on their cafeteria roof.

In «A Road not Taken», Swiss artists Christina Hemauer and Roman Keller travel back in time and, following the route the solar panels took, interview those involved in the decisions regarding these panels as well as those involved in the oil crisis of the time. They also look closely at the way this initial installation presaged our own era.

solar on the White House

From: Ross Donald, Jun 29, 2010 02:57 PM

Richard, Let's not put down the "old" hot water collectors from the Carter Era. They were state of the art and remain very good, being 90 percent efficient. PV panels are about 12 percent efficient. We need both, but the real challenge is going to be to perform a deep energy retrofit on such a historic building. Go for it!