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Finally: Obama Green Lights Solar Panels on White House Roof

Words by Leon Kaye

Details are not yet final, but President Obama has finally allowed retrofitting the White House roof to allow for solar panels. No, this is not a plot from HBO’s hit series Veep: it is finally happening. The final total of panels will range between 20 and 50 solar panels according to Think Progress and the Washington Post—perhaps enough to power a few flat screen TVs or power the equivalent of 15 seconds of flight on Air Force One. It is a step that is surely attracting all kinds of buzz in and outside of Washington, DC, one either seen as a token effort, a sign of leadership on sustainability, or as a yawner. The installation falls on the heels of a 2010 promise Obama had made to install a rooftop solar system.

So while Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy roils those on both the left and right, and the solar panels will hardly be enough to make a dent in the 132-room mansion’s energy consumption, the panels at the very least show the current administration is leading by example on clean energy policy.

Not that any of this toying around with solar is new. Those old enough to remember the energy shocks of the 1970s, gas lines and even-odd license plate numbered days will recall that Jimmy Carter ordered solar panels to be plunked on the White House roof. The panels were rudimentary compared to the ones on the market today, but they did heat water and serve a purpose, until his successor, Ronald Reagan, ordered them removed during the 1980s. Oil prices had tanked, so few rued the day those panels were banished to a cafeteria rooftop at a college in Maine.

Meanwhile, during George W. Bush’s first term, solar made its way onto the White House grounds. Buried in the news as the U.S. nudged towards a war with Iraq, 167 American-made solar panels made their way to a rooftop—not the president’s house, but a building (or a "shed") used for White House maintenance. Two solar thermal systems also were installed—one to heat the pool, the other to heat hot water. At the time of the project's completion, an executive of one of the contractors tasked with the installation said, “There is something special about an installation at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.” Sweet words indeed, compared to what we are going to hear once the new rooftop system is up and running.

So the discussion already rages, though chances are after the switch is flipped, it will last about as long as the fuss over the Royal Baby. The Daily Caller is already shrieking that “Obama admin. ruins historic building with solar panels,” (great link bait—clicking on the link reveals the Obamas jamming to a tune, followed by a bland description of the story) a hilarious outtake considering the building has had to change with the times. If the building had been treated simply as historic, it would probably not be standing: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt did so little to oversee the upkeep of the building that finally in the late 1940s, the Trumans had to move out in fear the building would collapse. It is a working building after all, not just a museum, with lines longer than Disneyland.

In the end, 20 to 50 panels should not offend anyone, unless they detest the view from the Washington Monument. Now the Obamas need to up the ante: put a rooftop garden on top complete with a composter to boot. Even better, that lawn fronting Pennsylvania Avenue wastes water—put a solar array there! Then we can pop some popcorn and watch the snarky comments from talking heads and bloggers heat up even more.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is the editor of GreenGoPost.com and frequently writes about business sustainability strategy. Leon also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable Brands, Inhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).

[Image credit: Leon Kaye]

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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