Where Are the White House Solar Panels Obama Promised This Spring?
Thirty two years ago today, President Jimmy Carter installed a series of solar panels on the White House roof. He stood up there on the roof that day, and issued an oracular warning: "A generation from now, this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, or it can be a small part of the greatest adventures undertaken by the American people."
We found out the answer in much less than a generation -- it only took six years for Ronald Reagan to rip them off the roof. But we thought we'd gotten a new chance last fall when the Obama administration promised that solar panels would go back up this spring.
Spring ended last night, and...no solar panels. Instead there was a press release from the director of the Department of Energy's Solar Energy Technology Program saying "the Energy Department remains on the path to complete the White House solar demonstration project, in keeping with our commitment, and we look forward to sharing more information -- including additional details on the timing of this project -- after the competitive procurement process is completed." Translated from the bureaucratic, I think this means "we're working on it, just not very hard."
It reminds me of what a bum rap I've always thought Jimmy Carter took. His administration is often remembered as "inept," "ineffective," "bungling." But in fact he got an awful lot of things right, not the least of them renewable energy.
In three years -- precisely the same length of time Obama has been in office -- he managed to get solar panels on the roof. But he did it at a time when almost no-one knew anything about solar power. You couldn't open the Yellow Pages and find solar installers the way you can these days; I've talked to many of the guys who put those first panels up, and they were all pioneers of this industry. And yet Carter got the panels up.
Obama, meanwhile, can look around the world at, say, China -- where 250 million people take showers with hot water coming off rooftop panels. (By one calculation, they produce as much hot water as 40 nuclear power plants). Ninety percent of Israeli homes have rooftop solar. I'm writing this with power from the pv panels on my roof.
So what's the hold up? Possibly Obama just prefers coal: earlier this spring he opened up a huge swath of federal land in Wyoming for mining, the equivalent of inaugurating 30 coal-fired power plants. More likely, his political advisors are afraid people will connect him with Carter -- that he'll catch some kind of electoral cooties and lose his campaign for a second term. My best guess? I think he's just concentrating on other things, and that to him global warming is a second-tier problem.
Which means we'll need to keep reminding him that climate change is the biggest crisis the world has ever faced, and that he could play a big role in stopping it. His communications director, Dan Pfeiffer, speaking last week in Minneapolis, told a Democratic crowd "We want you to push us. We absolutely do." Okay. We'll do the best we can.