Public reacts to White House spring solar plans

obama-white-housePresident Barack Obama has been a strong proponent of green energy, advocating for solar, wind and other renewables as well as for electric cars in the hopes of creating new jobs and a robust green economy along with a more sustainable future.

Soon, the President will be doing more than politicking for renewable energy, he’ll be plugging into it himself: The White House is scheduled to have both a PV and a solar thermal system installed sometime this spring.

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The Obama Administration’s decision to go solar – made last fall after some initial hesitation – is firing up progressives and environmentalists, many of whom have, until now, been disappointed with Obama’s moderate policies seemingly aimed to appease centrist independents.

Most unaware White House is going solar
SolarChargedDriving.Com decided to check in with members of an important Obama constituency, college students, to see what they think about the impending solar addition to the White House. Probably due in part to the fact that there hasn’t been much publicity about the Administration’s decision to add solar to the White House for several months, students interviewed at the University of Denver (DU) were unaware of the President’s plan to have solar panels installed but nonetheless showed enthusiasm towards the idea.

Jennifer Timmons, a sophomore biology major at DU, said, “I think it’s a great idea, because nobody likes a hypocrite, and so far it seems like Obama has been talking a lot about going green, but hasn’t been practicing what he preaches.”

Charlie Kulok, a sophomore communications major, said that he felt that renewable energy has “not been a primary objective [of the Obama administration]” because of other more pressing issues such as the economy and the war in Iraq, “but it seems like he is trying to direct the nation towards it.”


It’s the symbolism of Obama’s actions that count. It’s a direct and explicit way to tell the nation that solar power is the future.
— Zach Baca, freshman, University of Denver

Setting a good example
Julia Owen, a sophomore theater major at DU, said that the installation will set a great example for the country. “High profile people like celebrities and politicians, especially the president, have a lot of influence on the mainstream,” she noted.

Sam Vinson, a sophomore at DU, agreed, and said that if the government backs renewable energy, “then it will no longer just be the environmental activists who show support for it, but others will catch on.”

“It’s definitely a step in the right direction,” agreed Kulok. “I bet if you looked up stats in the next couple of years, that you will see more solar panels going up on private homes.”

History of solar on White House
Obama is following former president Jimmy Carter’s example. In 1979, Carter had 32 solar hot water panels installed on the White House as a symbol of the country’s dedication to renewable energy. President Ronald Reagan had the panels removed in 1986.

Dan Kennedy, the president of Sungevity, asked the Obama Administration last April to consider installing solar panels on the White House. In September, Bill McKibben, founder of the global warming activist group, traveled to Washington with members of his organization and students from Union College to urge the administration to re-install solar. However McKibben was unable to get a commitment from the White House.

The decision to install solar on the White House was first announced on Oct. 5, 2010 by Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) Chair Nancy Sutley and Energy Secretary Steven Chu. The Obama Administration hopes that this spring’s installation will show the world that solar technology is in fact reliable and affordable.

The costs of solar power
If DU students interviewed for this story are any indication, while adding solar panels to the White House will likely give solar some boost in the U.S., it’s questionable how big a boost it will be.

Jena LiVecchi, a sophomore at the university, is one of those who’s somewhat skeptical. “I don’t think the decision will have substantial outcomes, but it will at least start to make Americans think about it more seriously,” she said.

Some of the students interviewed expressed concern about solar as being too expensive and not having the up-to-date technology necessary to offer a complete transition from a fossil fuel based society to one based on renewable energy.


Obviously Obama can afford to put solar panels on his roof, and it will set a good example, but a lot of people can’t afford to do that.
— Julia Owen, sophomore, University of Denver

“Obviously Obama can afford to put solar panels on his roof, and it will set a good example, but a lot of people can’t afford to do that,” noted Owen.

Zach Baca, an undeclared freshman DU, disagreed, challenging the stereotype of solar as too expensive.

“The main critique of solar power is that it is expensive, but the fact of the matter is that it saves money over time,” he said.

Can solar replace fossil fuels?
Some students also expressed reservations about the ability of renewable energy forms such as solar to replace fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas.

“From what I know about solar panels, they aren’t capable enough to fully compensate for the energy that fossil fuel can produce,” Kulok said. “But if we keep researching and investigating the technology, it could work.”

Owen agreed.

“Anything that is an alternative to fossil fuel is a good thing but they all still have their problems,” she said. “To use solar energy you need a lot of acreage and the ability to form fit it to whatever environment you have. But if we spend more money investigating these problems, then we will find solutions.”

Solar symbolism
Based on available roof space, Obama Administration officials expect the photovoltaic system to include between 25 to 75 panels and to produce nearly 20,000 kWh of electricity annually. This would save a typical household $2,300 on its electricity bill, based on commercial rates in Washington. The solar hot water heating system, based on government estimates, could save an additional $1,000 a year.


“I think it’s a great idea, because nobody likes a hypocrite, and so far it seems like Obama has been talking a lot about going green, but hasn’t been practicing what he preaches.”
— Jennifer Timmons, sophomore, University of Denver

Despite the impressive kWh production the PV system might end up producing, it, along with the solar hot water system, are not expected to significantly offset the White House’s energy consumption.

However, the White House going solar will underscore the importance of transforming America’s fossil fuel based economy to a renewable energy economy, a transformation that, ideally, will create jobs, reduce foreign dependence on oil, cut energy costs, and reduce environmental pollution.

Solar & the future
“A complete conversion off fossil fuel isn’t probable but utilization of solar energy will be very beneficial, especially as part of the infrastructure for future developments,” said Vinson.

LiVecchi agreed, noting that, “It would be difficult to implement solar power on a grand scale quickly because there are still faults to it. But it is definitely the best alternative that we have now, especially with the diminishing fuel reserves.”

Owen pointed to the importance of making a move to renewable energy before fossil fuels such as oil run out.

“What happens when we run out (of fossil fuel)?” she asked. “Then we have no choice but to use renewable energy, so we might as well start innovating effective and efficient ways to do so now rather than later.”

Kulok voiced similar views.

“We need to make a clean change, but it isn’t possible to just one day stop fossil fuel consumption,” he said. “We need to slowly decrease our consumption and set realistic goals to reach, hopefully before it’s too late.”

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Lead by example
Perhaps the most important aspect of the White House going solar is the way that it sets a lead by example precedent.

While he doubted that the solar panels would make a significant difference in the energy consumption of an enormous mansion such as the White House, Baca was hopeful that Obama’s decision to install solar panels on perhaps the world’s most famous house will motivate many others to follow.

“It’s the symbolism of Obama’s actions that count,” he said. “It’s a more direct and explicit way to tell the nation that solar power is the future.”

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