White House to install rooftop solar panels

To demonstrate the potential of alternative energy, the roof of the presidential residence will have solar hot water and solar electric panels installed by next spring.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
3 min read
White House with Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel

The sun shines upon the White House, which soon will be sporting solar panels. In the foreground, President Obama strolls with outgoing Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

The White House residences will run with the aid of solar power, the Obama administration said today.

Solar panels are scheduled to be installed on the roof of the White House by the spring of next year to provide hot water and electricity to the executive mansion. Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced the two solar installations during a speech at the Green Gov Symposium, which is being hosted by the White House Council on Environmental Quality at George Washington University.

"This project reflects President Obama's strong commitment to U.S. leadership in solar energy and the jobs it will create here at home," said Chu said in a statement. "Deploying solar energy technologies across the country will help America lead the global economy for years to come."

The White House will now begin the procurement process to select a company to do the installations. The two installations--one which will convert sunlight to electricity and the other to heat water--are meant to show these technologies are available and reliable, the Department of Energy said in its statement.

During his speech, Chu listed a number of steps the DOE has done to improve energy efficiency at agency facilities. For example, the agency's computing facilities are using sensors and virtualization to cut cooling costs, and roof replacements at DOE buildings will by default use light-colored roofs to reduce the cooling load, he said.

At its main building, the DOE will start submetering electricity usage for a contest to see which agency can save the most money. "We want to make energy and money-saving a social norm," Chu said.

History of solar at White House
The move to put solar panels on the White House Residence comes only about four weeks after the White House rebuffed environmental activist Bill McKibben's offer to reinstall solar panels. McKibben tracked down the solar panels installed in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter and drove them to the White House. He then met with Obama administration officials who refused to take them back and instead promised to work on a "deliberative process."

Carter had the panels installed to provide some of the hot water for the White House kitchen. It was six years after the OPEC oil embargo, a time when solar power was ascending in the U.S.

President Ronald Reagan had the panels removed in 1986. During that period, funding for research and development in renewable energy had shrunk and the solar industry slowed. In 2003, President George W. Bush quietly installed three solar systems on the White House grounds, including hot water panels on the pool cabana, though not on the White House Residence itself.

The Obama White House has made clean energy a centerpiece of its policy objectives, but it was unsuccessful passing a combined energy and climate change bill earlier this year.

In an interview last month with Rolling Stone, Obama said the administration will now pursue a piecemeal approach to clean energy. For example, there are legislative proposals to mandate that utilities meet their energy needs with renewable sources or efficiency. Obama's weekly radio address on Saturday highlighted a solar power project and the number of jobs it had created.

A number of environmental groups and solar companies have urged the White House to use solar power, something that the administration is said to have been contemplating for several months. "Putting solar on the roof of the nation's most important home is a powerful symbol calling on all Americans to rethink how we create energy" Solar Energy Industries Association President Rhone Resch said in a statement.

Chu echoed that thought in a blog post today on the Energy Department site: "Around the world, the White House is a symbol of freedom and democracy. It should also be a symbol of America's commitment to a clean energy future."

Updated at 7:25 a.m. PT with changes throughout.