350.org makes the case for solar panels on the White House in 2010.
350.org makes the case for solar panels on the White House in 2010.
350.org

Nearly three years after the Obama administration promised to install solar panels on the White House roof, the plan is finally moving ahead. A White House official confirmed today that installment of American-made solar panels has begun. Bill McKibben, whose climate-action group 350.org led the original push to get the panels up, called the news “better late than never.”

In October 2010, then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced that by the end of spring 2011, “there will be solar panels that convert sunlight into electricity and a solar hot water heater on the roof of the White House.” The failure of those features to materialize provoked criticism from environmentalists, who saw it as symbolic of Obama’s larger lack of follow-through on sustainability goals.

Jimmy Carter with the original White House solar panels.
Jimmy Carter with the original White House solar panels.
350.org

The recent campaign for a solar-powered White House wasn’t an original idea. Way back in 1979 — before global warming became a household phrase — President Jimmy Carter installed solar panels that graced the White House roof until 1986, when President Ronald Reagan had them removed (ugh). The Washington Post reports:

In 1979, Carter had predicted the solar water heater and panels on the White House grounds will “either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an 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.”

For awhile, it was the lack of those panels that symbolized the road not taken. Climate activists hoped their reappearance would point the way back. Here’s McKibben in June 2011:

A year ago, some of us decided it would be a great symbol of commitment — kind of a renewal of vows — if Obama would put solar panels on top of the White House, just the way Jimmy Carter had done … After all, this was something he could do all on his own, without even having to ask the Congress. And who doesn’t like solar panels?

No word on what caused the big delay in fulfillment of Chu’s 2010 promise. Neither has it yet been revealed which company the panels are coming from, although in 2010 Chu had said the White House would hold a competitive bidding process to buy 20 to 50 panels.

The solar panels are only part of larger efficiency upgrades to the White House, The Hill reports:

“The retrofit will include the installation of energy-saving equipment, such as updated building controls and variable speed fans, as well as solar generation. The project will help demonstrate that historic buildings can incorporate solar energy and energy efficiency upgrades,” the White House official said.

Let’s hope that this time, the panels stay put.

Editor’s note: McKibben serves on Grist’s board of directors.