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More Solar Panels at the White House

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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white-houseThe Washington Post‘s indefatigable Juliet Eilperin got an unnamed official at the White House to confirm that solar panels are being reinstalled at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue this week—fulfilling a promise made by the Obama administration three years ago.

President Jimmy Carter famously put solar hot-water heating panels on the White House roof in the 1970s only to have President Ronald Reagan remove them in the 1980s, as he gutted funding for alternative energy research—a move Reagan’s own Secretary of State from 1982 to 1989 now regrets. Carter’s panels themselves have since been dealt out to the Smithsonian, a small college in Maine and a solar museum in, where else, China. And a new set of photovoltaic panels and solar hot water heaters returned to some of the buildings and facilities surrounding the White House the early 21st century, courtesy of President George W. Bush and the National Park Service.

According to Eilperin, the addition of the panels to the White House itself is part of an overall energy efficiency retrofit, which means the White House will finally come into line with rules that President Obama set for the rest of the federal government. It remains to been seen which photovoltaic panel maker will reap the PR coup of bringing solar power to the White House itself but it’s safe to say it won’t be Solyndra (despite the fact that its American-made technology was perfectly suited for flat roofs).

As for the three-year delay between promise and (potential) fulfillment, well, that may have something to do with the ways of the White House under any administration. Fred Morse, who first investigated solar power for President Nixon before helping President Carter install them on the White House, noted that it took years back then too to gain official approval—and the solar panels had to be invisible from the ground. Even more foolishly, part of the panels had to be painted white to match the background, rather than left a more heat-absorbing black. Hopefully that won’t be the case this time around and we’ll be able to see that solar power is back atop the American president’s residence, turning sunshine into electricity.

About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. M Tucker 6:11 pm 08/15/2013

    “…rather than left a more heat-absorbing black”

    Uhh, David, shouldn’t that be light absorbing?

    Link to this
  2. 2. KiwiBuzz 7:27 pm 08/15/2013

    No doubt these panels and receive the usual subsidy. The subsidy is charged to all… The consumers so, by installing them, the president is robbing the poor to subsidise those rich enough to afford solar panels.

    The electricity they produce cost at least five times the electricity from conventional sources and every night it goes off. Solar systems cause big problems with the main electricity grid that, once again, the consumer pays for.

    The whole thing is disgraceful and totally unscientific.

    Link to this
  3. 3. David Cummings 8:17 pm 08/15/2013

    KiwiBuzz, I think you are missing the point. It makes people feel warm and fuzzy. Try doing that burning coal or natural gas.

    Link to this
  4. 4. sault 8:34 pm 08/15/2013

    Kiwi,

    How come you pro-pollution folks NEVER cite your sources? To bad you’re ABSOLUTELY WRONG!

    “Deutsche Bank analysts have painted a bullish outlook for the global solar market, noting that solar PV is about to enter a “third growth phase” where it can be deployed without subsidies, and can resist a backlash from utilities.

    That’s because with module prices stabilising at around $US60c-70c/watt, and installation costs of around $US1-$US1.20 a watt, the levellised cost of solar electricity is between US10c-20c/kWh.”

    http://reneweconomy.com.au/2013/deutsche-bank-solar-distributed-energy-at-major-inflection-point-10487

    Average cost for electricity in the USA is US11c/kWh. But that’s not all! Solar PV generates PEAK, RETAIL electricity at the point of load. In other words, it generates energy when electricity prices themselves are the highest AND it eases congestion on the grid by partially to fully cancelling out the load of the building its on (and possible then some!)

    So yeah, those fossil fuel propaganda sites are lying to you. Instead, you should try to find information from sources that DON’T have a vested financial interest in spreading lies about renewable energy.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Owl905 10:12 pm 08/15/2013

    Good move by the White House. Make it an issue in the ’16 election – see how Joe Public responds when he’s told which candidate wants to go back to dirty.

    It was disgraceful and totally unscientific when Reagan tore them down.

    Link to this
  6. 6. cdarwin123 10:58 pm 08/15/2013

    Kiwibuzz must be trolling. He/she can’t honestly, believe solar is worse than coal/nuclear. It’s people like this that keep spreading misinformation and downright lies about the benefits of solar that slow progress. If you look at the data (FACTS), solar pays for itself and then some incredibly fast. Subsidized? Do you realize how much the government subsidizes big oil? http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/post/why-775-billion-in-fossil-fuel-subsidies-are-hardto-scrap/2012/06/18/gJQABaQUlV_blog.html

    Link to this
  7. 7. anumakonda 12:38 am 08/16/2013

    Delighted to know this. I am sure President Barack Obama will continue to give push to Renewables. I salute you,Sir, for your commitment.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

    Link to this
  8. 8. jabailo 12:44 am 08/16/2013

    Now all they need is a hydrogen generator and a fuel cell bank and they can run completely offgrid.

    Link to this
  9. 9. sethdiyal 1:33 am 08/16/2013

    Another lesson on the real costs of solar seems due. Real costs based on real projects not nonsense that includes subsidies from Big Oil’s bankers.

    Lets take Vermont for example. Lotsa greenies there telling us the wonders of solar.

    https://openpv.nrel.gov/rankings

    So Vermont $6.50 watt/peak or 7530 kw/peak installed average. Ok so using pV watts in Burlington the one watt peak gets 1.117kwh per annum. Financing at 7% home equity over 20 year life gives approx

    48 cents a kwh unsubsidized.

    Now lets look at the Green Dream – an America with 10% of its electricity supplied by solar.

    First lets add in for the array on every roof scam the low information greenie is wont to propose, 17 cents a kwh for gas backup, 10 cents a kwh for 7 times sized transmission systems and 10 cents a kwh off peak dumping.

    85 cents a kwh.

    While the installed cost might be lower, commercial is similar but financing rates for the typical fly by night solar/wind operator are at least 15% so

    90 cents a kwh.

    Here’s a 17 MW peak solar install in service Jan 2011 by expert engineers at Duke Energy using real solar panels made in the USA not the Walmart quality Chinese junk with the same service life as everything else you buy at Walmart.

    http://www.pv-tech.org/project_focus/davidson_county_solar_farm_north_carolina

    $43 a watt average, 65 cents a kwh at Dukes discount rate. To that we need to add 35 cents a kwh for gas backup transmission and off peak dumping. A buck a a kwh – Nice.

    According to the NREL the cost of commercial solar installs has not changed significantly since Jan 2011.

    ” The insightful cynic will note: “Now I understand all the fossil fuel ads with windmills and solar
    panels – fossil fuel moguls know that renewables are no threat to the fossil fuel business.” The
    tragedy is that many environmentalists line up on the side of the fossil fuel industry, advocating
    renewables as if they, plus energy efficiency, would solve the global climate change matter.

    … suggesting that renewables
    will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole
    is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.’

    - Dr James Hansen from ‘Baby Lauren and the Kool-Aid’
    2:07:05 PM

    Link to this
  10. 10. lamorpa 9:28 am 08/16/2013

    Sault,

    During these last few weeks of hot sun, which are a welcome change from the rain of previous few years, we have been getting calls from customers asking why the output from their solar PV panels is down, even though there is bright sun beaming down onto it.

    The simple answer is solar heating!… Unlike solar thermal systems which rely on the sun’s heat to do their work, solar PV works on light, and would like to stay as cool as possible. You’ll notice your solar PV panels will produce as much output on a clear sunny winter’s day as in the summer, even though the sun is lower in winter.

    In winter your solar PV panels will be far colder, maybe almost zero degrees, which will improve their efficiency. In the summer sun, the solar PV module temperature will soar far over the Standard Test Condition (STC), rating of 25 degrees C, causing output to slump a little.

    A recent example showed our office solar PV system drop off by 10% in the recent 30 degree plus days. So dont worry that a module is failing. Your system will perk up when the weather is cooler.

    - See more at: http://www.yougen.co.uk/blog-entry/1515/Why+solar+PV+panels+don%2727t+work+so+well+in+the+heat/#sthash.WsEOAXfp.dpuf

    common question I get when discussing solar photovoltaic (PV) power is: “What is the typical efficiency for panels now?” When I answer that mass-market polycrystalline panels are typically about 15–16%, I often see the questioner’s nose wrinkle, followed by dismissive mumbling that 15% is still too low, and maybe they’ll wait for higher numbers before personally pursuing solar. By the end of this post, you will understand why this response is annoying to me. At 15%, we’re in great shape: it’s plenty good for our needs. Let’s do the math and fight the snobbery. – See more at: http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2011/09/dont-be-a-pv-efficiency-snob/#sthash.OQbN6Fq0.dpuf

    First, let’s look at the efficiencies of other familiar uses of energy to put PV into perspective. I will act as if I’m directly addressing the PV efficiency snob, because it’s fun—and I would never be this rude in person. This may not apply to you, the reader, so please take the truculent tone in stride.

    Snark Attack

    So 15% is far too low for you? Perhaps you reason that laboratory prototypes and expensive spacecraft applications can get 40%-plus results, so let’s not take the plunge prematurely, given the abysmal 15%.

    Perhaps you drive a car. Maybe you’ll stop when you realize that it converts thermal energy from burning gasoline into locomotive power at an efficiency around 15–25% (and this on a finite resource). We should wait for better.

    Electric cars deliver battery-stored energy to the wheels at something like 85% efficiency. Now we’re talking. But the charging process imposes another 85% efficiency, and the real kicker is that the fossil fuel (or nuclear) plant supplying the electrical power is only 35% efficient for a net fossil-to-wheels efficiency around 25% (same ballpark as the gasoline car).
    - See more at: http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2011/09/dont-be-a-pv-efficiency-snob/#sthash.OQbN6Fq0.dpuf
    Actually this article is irrelevant, I just don’t want this forum to turn into another one of your endless long winded cut-and-paste tirades.

    Every time you post some endlessly long regurgitation of your pet info, I’m going to post some long thing too.

    Link to this
  11. 11. David Cummings 10:22 am 08/16/2013

    The sunlight that strikes the earth in an hour is more energy than 7 billion people use in a year. It only makes sense to exploit that amazing amount of energy.

    It also makes sense to subsidize research on new materials technology, which is where the action is.

    Link to this
  12. 12. sethdayal 2:03 pm 08/16/2013

    Numerous times I’ve demonstrated the real cost of cost of solar using actual costs of actual installations instead of propaganda this time from Big Oil’s German banker.

    Lets take Vermont for example. Lotsa greenies there telling us the wonders of solar.

    https://openpv.nrel.gov/rankings

    So Vermont $6.76 watt/peak or 7530 kw/peak installed average. Ok so using pV watts in Burlington the one watt peak gets 1.117kwh per annum. Financing at 7% home equity over 20 year life gives approx

    50 cents a kwh unsubsidized.

    Now lets look at the Green Dream – an America with 10% of its electricity supplied by solar.

    First lets add in for the array on every roof scam the low information greenie is wont to propose, 17 cents a kwh for gas backup, 10 cents a kwh for 7 times sized transmission systems and 10 cents a kwh off peak dumping.

    87 cents a kwh.

    While the installed cost might be lower, commercial is similar but financing rates for the typical fly by night solar/wind operator are at least 15% so

    90 cents a kwh.

    Here’s a 17 MW peak solar install in service Jan 2011 by expert engineers at Duke Energy using real solar panels made in the USA not the Walmart quality Chinese junk with the same service life as everything else you buy at Walmart.

    http://www.pv-tech.org/project_focus/davidson_county_solar_farm_north_carolina

    $43 a watt average, 65 cents a kwh at Dukes discount rate. To that we need to add 35 cents a kwh for gas backup transmission and off peak dumping. A buck a a kwh – Nice.

    According to the NREL the cost of commercial solar installs has not changed significantly since Jan 2011.

    Link to this
  13. 13. sault 12:49 am 08/18/2013

    jabaillo,

    The White House probably has backup systems for their backup systems in case they need to go off-grid for any reason. And why would they waste half of the energy they generate or more with the completely inefficient electricity to hydrogen back to electricity conversion chain when lithium ion batteries are already much more efficient and cheaper?

    Link to this
  14. 14. jgamoran 4:29 pm 08/19/2013

    Hi folks- you can check out how the Obamas’ solar roof could perform:

    http://www.generaytor.com/whitehouse

    We’ve created a simulation of the White House roof’s solar production, so you can follow what’s happening up there even before the panels are installed. Plus you can compare it to your own roof’s solar potential. Enjoy!

    Link to this
  15. 15. David Biello in reply to David Biello 9:14 am 08/20/2013

    The original Carter solar panels were not photovoltaics, they were solar hot water heaters–an array of black tubes designed to absorb the sun’s heat to warm the water within them. W put back on a mix of such solar hot water heating technology (for the pool) and photovoltaics to generate electricity and Obama will be adding yet more PV.

    Link to this

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