Solar panels on the White House? Sure, but with Carter-era tech? Updated

The headline on the story is “Environmentalists Want Carter-Era Solar Panels Back on White House.” This is another one of those examples of a headline not really being accurate to the story it’s leading. First, the opening details:

Environmental activists want President Obama to bring more sunlight into government — literally.

Toting one of the original solar panels that President Carter installed on his White House more than 30 years ago, environmental author Bill McKibben traveled to Washington, D.C., Thursday as part of a mini-road show aimed at convincing the Obama White House to go solar.

McKibben wants the White House to re-install solar panels after a decades-long hiatus. He said Obama would set an example for the country and, in doing so, potentially inspire more Americans to use the technology.

I don’t think there’s any question that:

  1. Having solar panels on the White House – or any government building, for that matter – is a good idea. Regardless of how much energy it would provide, it’d be something and in this case anything is better than nothing. Unlike a private homeowner who has to weigh in the cost/benefit analysis before spending the money to install the panels, the White House’s ownership isn’t moving out in the near future. The people own the White House. Regardless of the current resident, the House is going to stay so the notion of not “being in the house long enough to recoup the investment” doesn’t apply here. Same goes for any government building. I see little reason why every government building shouldn’t have panels up on their roofs generating whatever power we can get out of them. That’s better than having to spend more money to run the air conditioning to remove the heat those roofs are sucking up.
  2. Using Carter-era technology to do that would be a supremely stupid idea. Seriously, our solar technology has improved dramatically in the last 3 decades. Why would we ever want to do that rather than install current-spec solar arrays?

Read the actual text of the story, however, and you find out that McKibben hasn’t really suggested bolting the old panels back up. He wants the White House to put solar panels in place, not specifically those panels. That’s an idea I think merits support. It would certainly cost a lot less than the stimulus package and it would have the benefit of actually producing some results. Go for it, Mr. President.

Update: Andrew Revkin at the NYT brings up some issues with putting panels on the White House roof that I hadn’t considered.

But because the goal of this effort is a high-profile event involving the White House roof itself, it’s destined to run up against an immovable hurdle: a combination of the incredibly intertwined bureaucracy involved in doing anything to the White House and the authority of the Secret Service over anything that happens on that fabled roof. If you think congressional gridlock is bad, consider a bureaucracy that ranges from the  Office of the White House Chief Usher to the National Park Service and Secret Service.

The security issues involving the roof, particularly in the wake of the September 11th attacks, dominate. To get some input on such issues, I spoke with  Steve Strong on Wednesday. He’s a solar pioneer who attended the installation of the panels in 1979 and whose company  installed photovoltaic and hot water panels on other buildings in the White House complex in 2002. That project had its roots in the Clinton administration but was completed during the Bush administration “under the radar,” labeled by the supervising National Park Service team as a “maintenance operation,” Strong said. Strong said that there was never a question of doing something on the roof of the White House proper, given the anti-aircraft missiles and “spook stuff” there and the veto power of the Secret Service.

Excellent points. Lines of sight and mobility across that roof to provide fields of fire are certainly priorities that we can’t ignore. OK. So scratch the roof. Revkin reports later in that story that there are alternatives like putting a solar array on the lawn (not a good choice, as far as I’m concerned – what are we going to do, pave all the lawns under?) or mounting them on the covered walkways around the White House. That’s a good plan. How about we start there?


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