The quest to put solar power back on the White House

September 9, 2010

betterbill

Bill McKibben, founder of the green group 350.org, is on a quest to convince President Barack Obama to put solar panels back on the roof of the White House.

He’s at the end of a journey to Washington from Maine in a van fired by biodiesel carrying one of the 32 panels Jimmy Carter unveiled in 1979 during the first press conference on the White House roof.

Also in the van are students from Unity College, which got the the panels some time after President Ronald Reagan, no fan of alternative energy, had workers remove the panels during “roof repairs” in 1986.

McKibben had hoped to meet with somebody high up in the Obama administration such as Carol Browner, Obama’s top energy and climate aide. He’s been talking all week with the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) on the plan.

“They keep saying it’s complicated and difficult, but compared with the other tasks they face, we think this one is relatively simple and it would be a great statement,” McKibben said via cell phone from the van.

The White House tells him the administration is greening federal government buildings across the country, which he agrees is a good effort.

But the solar panel couriers want more.

After all, U.S. seed sales shot higher the year after Michelle Obama planted a vegetable garden on the White House grounds. Solar power backers say President Obama could spark a similar reaction in their business if he put panels on top of the most coveted real estate in the country.

A California company called Sungevity has offered to give the White House free up-to-date solar panels that generate electricity.

Carter’s panels still work, but they are the older kind that heat up water for the student cafe at the college.

The CEQ said in an email that a “White House representative will hold a meeting with the group to discuss support for renewable energy.” It was unclear if the panel would be allowed to be brought to the meeting.

Still, McKibben hopes to hand the 120-pound, six-foot-tall panel to somebody running the White House grounds, at least to have the item preserved at its original home.

Like many environmentalists, he would prefer that the country pass a climate bill, but the Senate failed to pass one this year.

“The trick is to get discussion started … and hopefully one day soon the White House will have a big spanking new array on its roof.”

If his group doesn’t succeed they vow to try again. “We have a lot more solar panels back at Unity college, so we might be taking a lot more road trips if we need to,” said Jamie Nemecek, one of the students travelling with McKibben.

Photo: Nancie Battaglia

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