"As oil continues to gush into the Gulf of Mexico and climate and clean energy legislation remains stalled in the Senate, President Obama has an opportunity to do more than criticize BP’s bumbling CEO, Tony Hayward, and lend lip service to the need for alternative energy. He can put solar panels back on the White House roof.
That’s the thrust of a citizen action campaign called “Globama,” led by the solar energy company Sungevity, which has offered to donate and install a photovoltaic array on the White house at no cost to the Obamas or to taxpayers. According to the campaign’s online petition, should President Obama take Sungevity up on its offer, “this achievement will be an important symbol to the world that the United States is committed to realizing that environmental and economic benefits of clean energy.”
So should the president go solar? Before deciding, Obama might consider what happened the last time one of his predecessors invested in solar energy.
As many readers will no doubt remember, in 1979 Jimmy Carter unveiled a thermal hot water solar system bolted to the White House roof. “A generation from now,” the president told assembled reporters, “this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it can be a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people—harnessing the power of the sun to enrich our lives as we move away from our crippling dependence on foreign oil.”
Roughly a generation on, Carter’s solar panels have in fact become a museum piece. In 1986, then-president Ronald Reagan had the panels removed during routine White House roof maintenance and never bothered replacing them. After languishing in federal storage for the better part of a decade, the system was donated to environmentally minded Unity College, in Maine, where they were mounted on the school’s cafeteria. Today, one of the panels is on display at the Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta.
From one perspective, then, the story of Jimmy Carter’s adventures in solar energy reads like a cautionary tale. Any president who puts some attention-grabbing, trendy technology on the roof of arguably the world’s most famous building is merely providing his successor the opportunity to score political points by tearing the thing down.
But there’s another side to the story—one that most readers may not recall. For Carter in 1979, the solar panels were a symbolic gesture meant to garner support for his proposed $100 million “solar energy bank” initiative, with a goal of generating 20% of U.S. power from alternative energy sources by 2000. To fund the plan, Carter urged Congress to pass a “windfall profits” tax on the domestic oil industry and approve subsidies to encourage developers to install solar panels on new and existing buildings.
As a public relations stunt, the solar panels worked. Stories and op/eds in the days following the rooftop press conference were largely supportive. The few dissenting voices criticized Carter for not doing enough to encourage solar and other alternative sources of energy. Such enthusiasm was characteristic of mounting interest in clean, renewable energy technologies since the onset of the energy crisis in 1973. In April of 1979, just months before Carter’s solar plan went public, this newspaper reported on a study claiming that investing in solar energy would create as many as 3 million jobs by 1990.
In the end, the Iran hostage crisis scuttled both Carter’s bid for reelection and his plans for a solar-powered America. Reagan’s landslide victory in 1980, his hands-off approach to energy policy (he tried, unsuccessfully, to dissolve the newly established Department of Energy) and falling oil and gas prices largely quashed public interest in solar energy.
So, given this recent history of solar panels on the White House, should Obama go that route?
In a word, yes. With oil and gas prices hovering around mid-1970s levels (in today’s dollars), pervasive worry about climate change, and outrage over the BP oil spill, the time is ripe for Obama to throw the full weight of his support behind solar and other renewable energy technologies. Unlike the politically motivated energy crisis of the 1970s, today’s energy challenges are all too real, and many people around the world seem ready to envision an energy future beyond fossil fuels.
To be sure, putting a solar array on the White House won’t solve our energy problems. But it would be a potent symbol of the president’s commitment and willingness to support initiatives that will start us on a path toward clean, renewable power. And given the fact that our many energy-related problems are here for the long haul, it won’t be so easy for Obama’s successor to rip the panels down."