Our country’s long-standing battle for greener energy sources poses a question of national importance. How should we power the most powerful house in America? Photo: The sun shines on solar power at the White HouseThe White House was an early adopter of a technology that is finally gaining popular traction: solar power. And the sun is still powering the national landmark.

For a country long reliant on fossil fuels, which have been the center of many fierce policy disputes, using solar to power our president’s home has symbolic significance.

But electrifying 1600 Pennsylvania Ave with sunshine wasn’t as easy as with other ordinary American homes.

Jimmy Carter takes the first step

On June 20, 1979, in the third year of President Jimmy Carter’s term, the administration unveiled 32 new solar thermal panels installed on the White House. In the shadow of the oil price shock that extended over much of the decade, embracing renewable energy at his own home showed the president’s deep commitment to the environment.

When the solar thermal panels were up and running, they heated water for the staff kitchen, frequently used by the president himself.

At the dedication ceremony, President Carter expressed confidence in the new solar system’s future: “In the year 2000, this solar water heater behind me, which is being dedicated today, will still be here supplying cheap, efficient energy.”

He was right that the system would still be operational, but he was wrong about where.

The history of green energy at the White House has taken a more mixed, uneven path than he might’ve expected.

The panels come down

President Ronald Reagan did not share his predecessor’s enthusiasm for solar power, and his policies reflected this. Under his presidency, tax incentives for renewable energy were revoked. Government funding for research and development into solar and wind power was halted.

He didn’t tear down the solar thermal panels from the White House roof for this reason, as some may assume. The panels were brought down in 1986 when the roof underwent repairs.

But after the repairs were done, they didn’t go back up.

“It was then determined that the cost of returning the panels to the roof would be far greater than any savings from them and possession of the panels was transferred to the National Park Service,” said Ray Wilson, an archivist for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, in an email.

Not that it would have mattered. It was clear the Reagan administration didn’t support additional government spending, regardless of whether the benefits of solar outweighed the costs.

“The Department of Energy has a multibillion-dollar budget, in excess of $10 billion,” Reagan said in a debate with Carter during the presidential campaign. “It hasn’t produced a quart of oil or a lump of coal or anything else in the line of energy.”

The panels languished in storage for a while until the early ’90s, when Unity College in Maine decided to install them on its cafeteria.

The sun shines again on solar power at the White House

President George W. Bush, himself a former oil man, was the president to bring solar panels back to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Surprised? Most people are.

The Bush administration embraced solar with no unveiling, no ceremony, not even a press release. And the panels didn’t adorn the White House proper, but the pool’s cabana, where they again served as water heaters. There was no sense that the country would care that solar was back at the president’s home.

When President Obama was elected, a long-time proponent of renewable energy and action on climate change, activists argued it was time to get serious again about solar power at the White House.

Sungevity, in partnership with 350.org and other solar advocates, gathered more than 50,000 signatures in support of installing solar panels back onto the White House roof — just as they’d been when Carter left office.

In October 2010, the administration announced a plan to do exactly that. The announcement focused on the importance of leadership on renewable energy.

“As we move towards a clean energy economy, the White House will lead by example,” said Steven Chu, who was then Secretary of Energy.

Because the White House is no ordinary residence, it took a few years for the logistics to get worked out. The installation began in August 2013 and was finished by May 2014.

“Support for solar energy is one issue that rises above the political fray,” Sungevity said in an announcement when the installation finally began. “All Americans can reap benefits from widespread solar adoption – solar power saves money, boosts the economy and creates jobs.”

The White House’s 6.3-kilowatt solar energy system is similar to those ordinary American families might install on their homes. Rather than operating as water heaters, these solar panels use photovoltaic cells to turn sunshine into electricity. Over 20 years, the system is estimated to offset the equivalent of 250,000 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s also the equivalent of 280,000 car miles not driven or 3,000 trees planted.*

When the installation was finally complete, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz emphasized the significance of the administration’s decision.

“Solar panels at the White House are a really important message that solar is here, we are doing it, we can do a lot more,” he said.

To learn more about how solar power can change your life, request a personalized solar quote.

Originally published on Patch.com. Click here to see the original article.

*Estimates were derived by entering the projected output of the solar system into the EPA Equivalencies Calculator (April 2014).

Photo credit: HiraV via Wikimedia Commons

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