Energy: The White House Says No Thanks to Solar Panels

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Back in 1979—when the economy was suffering and the U.S. was facing a serious energy crisis, a situation in no way similar to what’s happening now—President Jimmy Carter installed solar panels on the roof of the White House. It was a symbol of Carter’s push to get the U.S. to face up to its energy problems, beginning with the most valuable rooftop real estate in the country. Unfortunately for greens, when Carter lost to Ronald Reagan in 1980, the new President quickly removed the panels—it would be morning in America, but not a solar-powered one. The solar array survived, however, with some of the panels sent to Unity College in Maine, where they’ve stayed since.

But this week solar made its way back to the White House. Author and environmentalist Bill McKibben—the leader of the movement on climate change—led a group of college students to Washington in an effort to meet with President Obama and convince him to reinstall the solar panels. It was a way to let the White House once again take the lead on alternative energy. In the wake of the Obama Administration’s failure to push through an effective climate and energy bill so far, putting solar back on the roof of the White House seemed to be the least they could do, as McKibben wrote in the Washington Post:

Clearly, a solar panel on the White House roof won’t solve climate change — and we’d rather have strong presidential leadership on energy transformation. But given the political scene, this may be as good as we’ll get for the moment.

Sadly, it looks like climate advocates won’t even be getting that. McKibben and his student activists met with mid-level Administration officials today, who told them that the White House couldn’t take the panels. John Broder at the New York Times has the story:

They explained that there were a variety of reasons that the White House roof is not available for a gesture with very little energy-saving potential and that the Obama administration was doing more to promote renewable energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions than any previous government. The word “stunt” may have come up.

Well, driving Carter’s solar panels down from Maine in a biodiesel-powered van as part of a “Put Solar On It” campaign may possibly fit the definition of a “stunt,” of the sort that McKibben and his fellow activists at have gotten very good at over the past couple of years. As Andrew Revkin points out at Dot Earth, this isn’t 1979 anymore—post-9/11 security concerns mean that it’s almost impossible to get anything put on the White House roof anymore. Nor is the White House without solar power—former President George W. Bush put photovoltaic panels on a maintenance shed, albeit rather quietly. And while motivating the Senate on climate is beyond Obama’s powers—and possibly anyone’s—his Administration has pushed the federal government in the direction of greater sustainability.

Still, symbolism is symbolism, and given how unhappy many greens are feeling towards the White House, rebuffing McKibben and his friends doesn’t look all that great—especially to the young, committed activists who helped form Obama’s Army in 2008. Here’s what Amanda Nelson, a Unity College student who traveled with McKibben, told Revkin:

I didn’t expect I’d get to shake President Obama’s hand, but it was really shocking to me to find out that they really didn’t seem to care. They couldn’t even give us a statement…. They did stress it’s a slow process and I recognize that. What we did today maybe will help a year from now. But right now it didn’t happen.

That’s been the unavoidable reality for climate activists in 2010—wait until next year. But as McKibben himself is fond of saying, we may not have much more time to waste.