The White House Goes Solar


The White House is going solar -- again.

Solar panels were installed on the White House last week, part of President Obama's commitment to use more renewable energy. It wasn't announced who the manufacturer was, but the solar panels were made in the U.S., making this the latest addition to a growing residential solar industry.

It ends a 40-month process that began with Energy Secretary Steven Chu's announcement of the solar installation for the White House. Apparently those soft costs that make solar more expensive in the U.S. than in Germany are magnified when the White House is involved.

We've been here before
This isn't the first time, or even second, that solar panels have been installed at the White House. Jimmy Carter installed 32 panels on the West Wing in 1979, only to have them removed by Ronald Reagan.


Photo: Carter Library.

President George W. Bush quietly had 167 solar panels installed on a maintenance shed in 2002, and they've been delivering electricity ever since.

The latest installation will be on the White House residence, putting them front and center at the country's most famous address. It is also the biggest symbol in President Obama's effort to get more power from renewable energy.

A sign of the times
Considering the amount of time and energy it must have taken just to permit the installation of solar panels, it's doubtful this is a profitable endeavor for the White House. Officials are saying the payback for the project is eight years, but that's probably just considering hard costs of the panels and installation. There's more than just cost involved when such a visible address goes solar.

For the solar industry, it's a symbol of the progress that's been made since President Carter installed panels in 1979 and President Reagan removed them in 1986. Solar power is no longer a pipe dream of the tree huggers and environmentally conscious engineers; it's a reality that millions of Americans get power from today and millions more will be considering over the next few years.

SolarCity has set its sights on having 1 million rooftop solar installations in the next five years, First Solar has built power plants that can power more than half a million homes, and SunPower is building the world's largest solar plant along with building a residential solar business as well.

The revolution is here
Having solar panels on the White House was once a symbolic move made by presidents hoping the industry would one day be able to sustain itself. Today, it's a symbol of an energy revolution that's taking place before our eyes. The U.S. as a whole installed 3.3 GW of solar power last year -- about the size of three nuclear plants -- and more than double that amount will be installed this year. It may only make up a small percentage of the electricity we consume today, but costs are now reaching grid parity in a growing part of the country, and with costs down 37% over the past two years, the industry will continue to grow, not because of political will but because it's economically sound to do so. The White House is just the latest residence to see the merits of going solar.

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