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Fight over Solar Power Returns to White House Roof [Video]

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


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obama-white-house-solar-panels-installed

Installation of the new solar panels on the White House. Screen grab from White House video

The sunshine that warms Washington, D.C. is once again generating electricity for the White House. After an absence of nearly 30 years, the Obama administration has announced that a 6.3 kilowatt photovoltaic installation of the “typical size for an American house,” is back on the White House roof and generating power.

The Obama administration had announced in 2010 plans to add solar but red tape and the White House’s status as a historic and working government building slowed progress. “It’s a really important message that solar is here,” said Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz in a video highlighting the now complete installation. “We are doing it. We can do a lot more. I am very bullish on the future of solar as a key part of our clean energy future.”

President Carter was the first to install solar on the White House roof on June 20, 1979, adding 32 panels that used the sun’s heat to make hot water for cooking, cleaning and other domestic uses. Those original White House solar thermal panels ultimately fulfilled one of Carter’s predictions in a speech at the commissioning ceremony, becoming a sign of a “road not taken” when the Reagan administration removed them during roof maintenance in 1986. “A generation from now, this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken,” Carter said, “or it can be just a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people”—the shift to cleaner and renewable sources of energy.

The Reagan administration stashed the solar panels in a government warehouse where they languished until rescued by Peter Marbach, then an administrator at Unity College in Maine who remains passionate about solar power’s potential. He had them installed on a Unity College cafeteria roof where they produced hot water for decades before being taken down again and becoming museum pieces.

In 2003, the National Park Service added 9-kilowatts-worth of photovoltaicssemiconducting panels that convert sunlight to electricity—and solar hot water technology to White House outbuildings during the administration of George W. Bush. Now the Obama administration has installed the first photovoltaics on the main White House roof.

The administration claims that every bit of the photovoltaic system, which had to be attached to the concrete roof with special rails, is American-made, including the panels themselves and the inverters to convert the electricity for use inside the White House. The White House didn’t specify which U.S. companies supplied the materials.

The Obama White House is perhaps the most visible example of a shift to solar among Americans. Blue-black photovoltaics crop up on rooftops across the country and have even sparked a political backlash in states like Arizona and Georgia. Some electric utilities have argued that solar homeowners benefit from the larger electric grid to provide power when the sun is not shining without paying for maintenance of the grid due to the energy generated during the day. Already, the main Hawaiian electric utility has lost more than 10 percent of its customers to home generation of electricity from solar, though solar power still provides less than 1 percent of the electricity in the entire U.S. As a result, utilities and some politicians have proposed a solar tax to ensure grid maintenance. “The grid of the utility is no longer simply selling electricity,” noted Michael Lieberich, chairman and founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance at their summit on April 8. “It’s buying little bits of excess power from you and selling them to other people. How do they get paid to do that?”

Every four minutes a small business or homeowner installs solar, according to the Solar Energy Industry Association, and solar installations in the U.S. have grown by 418 percent from 2010 to 2014, a total of more than 12,000 megawatts of solar power nationwide. The Obama White House is just the latest and perhaps most famous household to use solar power to reduce its electricity needs and help combat climate change. “The clean energy revolution is not something for the distant future,” Moniz added. “It’s happening right now.”

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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Comments 25 Comments

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  1. 1. SteveO 5:32 pm 05/9/2014

    “It’s buying little bits of excess power from you and selling them to other people. How do they get paid to do that?”

    Umm, through avoidance of buying and maintaining additional capacity?

    Link to this
  2. 2. jharsh 11:23 pm 05/9/2014

    The “avoidance of buying and maintaining additional capacity” doesn’t really cover the utility’s cost when they’re forced to buy power at the same rate they sell it at. A much better solution would be to have separate power in and power out meters and let solar households sell their excess electricity to whatever power company they wanted to, and let those companies pay line charges.

    Link to this
  3. 3. abolitionist 6:38 am 05/10/2014

    “Umm, through avoidance of buying and maintaining additional capacity?”

    Cost avoidance =/= revenue.

    Some people forget that infrastructure maintenance costs are real, necessary, and are ignored or glossed over at our peril.

    Link to this
  4. 4. singing flea 7:38 am 05/10/2014

    As a resident in Hawaii I am well versed in the arguments on both side of the issue. Maintenance fees for the grid are not the real issue. It’s a public utility and the commission in charge of overseeing the utility can regulate the fees for persons hooked up to the grid no matter if the electricity is incoming or outgoing.

    The utilities have to pay for power generation no matter what. The grid is already in place and was paid for years ago, so the maintenance cost is negligible anyway. Any new customers pay enormous fees if poles have to be put in so even that cost is already covered and at a profit for the electric company.

    What the grip is all about is upgrades to substations to accommodate reverse load capacity, but that too is a red herring because excess load capacity can also be handled by battery storage and with the increase in the use of electric cars they too can also be used to store excess power that the existing grid can’t handle (and it can take more then the electric company claims).

    The real truth is that the electric company now depends on the petroleum industry to generate most of the power in Hawaii. It is lobbyists in that industry who are screaming bloody murder about their loss of revenue in an industry that has been a virtual monopoly for over a hundred years and even more so since the plantations closed down that provided plantation towns with power from burning cane waste at the mills.

    Hawaii is in an excellent position to grab the grid from the good ol’ boys who have controlled it since Edison invented the light bulb. Make no mistake about it, the grid is owned by the people, not the electric company. That is why it is regulated by the state government. Geothermal, wind power, ocean thermal energy and solar could make the monopoly obsolete overnight if we could just get the politicians out of the way. Hawaii is a good example of how private solar can work, but also a perfect example of how money and graft can prevent innovation if we the people let them get away with it.

    Link to this
  5. 5. BookSpine 9:18 am 05/10/2014

    ‘It’s a public utility and the commission in charge of overseeing the utility can regulate the fees for persons hooked up to the grid no matter if the electricity is incoming or outgoing.’
    You’re right, but the PSCs usually don’t do so, even though they should. That needs to change. The fact that power supply (generation) and power distribution (the grid) are mixed together is part of the problem. That was satisfactory with the original star network, but with people transitioning to self-generation, the costs of maintaining the grid should be distinguished from the costs of power supplied. If nothing else, it will help show people what those costs are.

    And those grid maintenance costs are not negligible. Sticking with Hawaii (while noting that their operating costs are higher than many), one grid maintenance project, servicing some 294,000 customers, is budgeted at more than $10M. Fortunately, the Feds are kicking in $5M.
    https://www.smartgrid.gov/project/hawaiian_electric_company_east_oahu_switching_project

    Link to this
  6. 6. ApprenticeshipUSA 12:04 pm 05/10/2014

    Great article! I remember when the ‘passive solar’ water heating system was installed at the White House and when it was removed and put into storage. In fact, the entire idea of ‘passive solar’ was largely stowed away. Out of sight, out of mind. Yet, passive solar water heating systems, installed from California to Florida could change the energy game. The new, re-designed systems last for decades, with little to no maintenance (specs can be found at the DOE)and have new features to address previous issues of freezing or overheating. These systems are best employed in new construction.
    Is there anyone out there who could estimate how much natural gas, greenhouse gas emissions and infrastructure costs could be saved if passive solar were installed on all new construction? i’d love to see the numbers!

    Link to this
  7. 7. CarefulReview 12:05 pm 05/10/2014

    While it is not true that the grid is owned by the people, nor is that why it is regulated by the state, it does stand to reason that those who make money from using it should pay for its upkeep, maintenance, and improvements.

    Link to this
  8. 8. SoftLanding 1:28 pm 05/10/2014

    SF – You seem to be accepting contradictory positions. You certainly seem to have taken the position that grid users should not have to pay for their use of the grid. You also state ‘new customers pay enormous fees if poles have to be put in so even that cost is already covered and at a profit for the electric company’. So what’s it to be? Do you think the people who make money from the grid should pay for it or not?

    Link to this
  9. 9. singing flea 2:00 pm 05/10/2014

    SoftLanding…You need to take the time to read what I said more carefully. I certainly do not think grid users should not have to pay for maintenance. Hawaii law already addresses the grid maintenance fees and everybody pays that. It is calculated into the bill whether the individual is a selling or buying power. I do think we should not have to pay for fuel oil costs and the adjustments if we are a net contributor to the grid. That is the whole purpose of weening ourselves off big oil dependence. Now, what part don’t you understand?

    Link to this
  10. 10. CarefulReview 2:49 pm 05/10/2014

    … In other words the state owns it …

    You’re wrong.

    In the U.S. the assets are owned by the business entity (Corp, Co, Partnership, LLC, etc). The business entity may be regulated in one way or another, but the business entity is liable for the asset, takes depreciation on the asset, and may sell the asset.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asset

    Link to this
  11. 11. Johnay 4:26 pm 05/10/2014

    @BookSpine…

    $10M maintenance project covering 294000 customers. That’s about $34 each. Spread it out over six months of bills and nobody will notice.

    Link to this
  12. 12. singing flea 7:57 pm 05/10/2014

    http://eqmaglive.com/EQ-ARTICLE-27040-Hawaii-Public-Utilities-Commission-orders-Hawaiian-utilities-to-facilitate-interconnection-of-PV-systems.html#.U262OSitK1g

    “Together HECO, MECO and HELCO – all owned by electricity supplier Hawaiian Electric Industries Inc. – supply electricity to roughly 95% of the Hawaiian population.”

    Although the HEI is a privately funded corporation, it is under contract to supply power to the grid. The grid is a system of transmission lines and sub stations that is subject to state regulation.

    However from the following site:

    http://puc.hawaii.gov/

    The Public Utilities Commission (PUC) regulates all franchised or certificated public service companies operating in the State prescribes rates, tariffs, charges and fees; determines the allowable rate of earnings in establishing rates; issues guidelines concerning the general management of franchised or certificated utility businesses; and acts on requests for the acquisition, sale, disposition or other exchange of utility properties, including mergers and consolidations.”

    Now, you geniuses tell me who actually owns the utilities.

    Here is another one for the uneducated among us, who owns your “private” property?

    Try not paying your property taxes for a while and you will find out.

    Essentially all that HEI really owns is the right to sell power in Hawaii. If they fail to follow the rules they can be forced to liquidate.

    Does the following sound like something that a company who actually owned the grid would agree to?

    The Hawaii Public Utilities Commission (PUC) has announced four major decisions and orders that collectively provide key policy, resource planning and operational directives to the Hawaiian Electric Industries companies Hawaiian Electric Company Inc. (HECO), Maui Electric Co. Ltd. (MECO) and Hawaii Electric Light Co. Inc. (HELCO). The orders require the utilities to develop and implement major improvement action plans to aggressively pursue energy cost reductions, proactively respond to emerging renewable energy integration challenges, improve the interconnection process for customer-sited PV systems and embrace customer demand response programs. Among other things, the orders require the three utilities to come up with technical solutions and action plans to increase distributed generation interconnection capability in major capacity increments within the next 120 days. The utilities must now also develop and implement a distribution circuit monitoring program to determine whether high penetration of PV systems creates safety, power quality of reliability problems, and they must investigate how to safely integrate more renewable energy onto the grid over the next 20 years. Together HECO, MECO and HELCO – all owned by electricity supplier Hawaiian Electric Industries Inc. – supply electricity to roughly 95% of the Hawaiian population. Approximately 129 MW of new PV capacity was added to the companies’ grids in 2013. As of Dec. 31, 2013, the grids of these three electric companies hosted a total of 40,159 PV systems with a total capacity of 300 MW.

    What they own is a contract, as I stated earlier, plain and simple.

    Link to this
  13. 13. BookSpine 7:09 am 05/11/2014

    @Johnay…

    A certain someone who claims to live in Hawaii has proven my point. LOL!

    Link to this
  14. 14. Dr. Strangelove 3:52 am 05/12/2014

    Obama is biased to solar. He should also put a small nuclear reactor a.k.a. radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) in the White House. Or a geothermal heat pump. Why only solar?

    Link to this
  15. 15. SteppingStone 10:20 am 05/12/2014

    - who actually owns the utilities -

    It’s quite obvious who owns the utilities, you posted the answer yourself.

    “Together HECO, MECO and HELCO – all owned by electricity supplier Hawaiian Electric Industries Inc.” (#12. singing flea,7:57 pm 05/10/2014)

    Emphasis mine.

    Link to this
  16. 16. SoftLanding 10:53 am 05/12/2014

    SF @9 – You need to take the time to read what I said more carefully.

    I did. Had you posted then what you posted @9, I wouldn’t have pointed out the differing POVs. You didn’t mention the fuel oil costs and the adjustments until AFTER my post. As for those fuel oil costs and the adjustments, shouldn’t your complaints be directed at the regulator?

    If you want Hawaii to grab the grid from the good ol’ boys, Hawaii will have to pay the utility for the property.

    Link to this
  17. 17. SAULT18 12:12 pm 05/12/2014

    Re: Dr. Strangelove,

    Solar is the optimal solution for private citizens to generate their own electricity. It has no moving parts, requires little maintenance and does not present the hazards that an RTG comes with. I assume you are just being silly by suggesting that the White House go this route since bringing plutonium into a private residence is a really bad idea. The Curiosity Rover uses 4.8kg of Pu to generate 125W of electricity. Trying to supply the White House in this manner would require much of the world’s entire stockpile. As for geothermal energy, maybe Wahsington DC doesn’t have an economically usable geothermal resource underfoot. A ground-source heat pump system CAN be used in almost every part of the country except for permafrost-laden regions in Northern Alaska, but you’d have to drill a large network of pipes through the ground to pull it off. Doing this under historic buildings is difficult to accomplish let alone the fact that it is the functioning headquarters of the Exec Branch.

    One person’s perception of bias is another person’s well-researched and executed desicion.

    Link to this
  18. 18. ChrisG314 1:32 pm 05/12/2014

    ““It’s buying little bits of excess power from you and selling them to other people. How do they get paid to do that?”

    Gosh, if only we had thousands of years of experience with traders buying from A and selling at a higher price to B.

    Link to this
  19. 19. CarefulReview 2:28 pm 05/12/2014

    … What they own is a contract, as I stated earlier, plain and simple.
    You were wrong earlier, and you’re wrong now.

    Hawaii Electric Light Company. owns and operates five generating plants on the island of Hawaii, two at Hilo and one at each of Waimea, Keahole and Puna, along with distributed generators at substation sites.
    http://www.reuters.com/finance/stocks/companyProfile?symbol=HE

    The utility company owns the assets.

    Link to this
  20. 20. Penniless 8:46 am 05/13/2014

    I note from the quote you posted (7:57 pm 05/10/2014) that the PUC does not claim to own the assets in question, and does acknowledge that the utilities do. Why do you claim that the utilities do not own the assets while the PUC recognizes they do?

    Link to this
  21. 21. Dr. Strangelove 3:32 am 05/14/2014

    sault
    No use wasting my time on you. Obviously you’re biased to solar. Do you work for a solar company?

    Link to this
  22. 22. EarlySaturdayMorning 6:24 am 05/15/2014

    @12. singing flea – Does the following sound like something that a company who actually owned the grid would agree to?

    … The utilities must now also develop and implement a distribution circuit monitoring program to determine whether high penetration of PV systems creates safety, power quality of reliability problems …

    If that distribution circuit monitoring program is one that runs on a computer(s), it will be yet another asset the utility owns. You provided your self-refutation.

    Link to this
  23. 23. ssm1959 4:10 pm 05/15/2014

    Not to defecate in the punchbowl but did anyone notice that Hawaii is generally warm in the mid latitudes and tends to be sunny? It can hardly serve as a model for the remainder of the country where many areas are high latitude, cold and cloudy.

    Link to this
  24. 24. TomL88 11:59 pm 05/15/2014

    I stand corrected. the solar tax credits were extendd to 2016 by the Federal government. Without them solar would be dead!

    Link to this
  25. 25. gary@thekirkpatricks.net 9:41 am 05/16/2014

    I own a 15.1 KW Solar Array in Ohio. In Ohio, the utility credits me back for each KW hour I generate on an even basis as long as the monthly amount does not exceed my actual draw from the grid. If it does, they pay me the same as any other power generator… I consider this a fair trade. As for grid usage, the small excess I generate each day is easily soaked up by my neighbors. Grid regulation is not an issue yet. If the utilities here in Ohio, (who have already lobbied our state legislature into cutting the renewable power generation goals in half this year) take the Hawaii or Arizona route, I will just install my own storage facility and use utility generated power only when necessary to charge the batteries.

    By the way ssm1959, have you ever noticed how your air conditioner runs a lot more on a sunny warm day such as those experienced in Hawaii? Hellooooo… That is just the time those solar panels are putting out their maximum power!!!! Who is BSing who?

    TO Sault18: Just a minor correction. I have a geothermal heat pump, and drilled no holes. All you need is a backhoe to dig (in my case) 3 100 ft long 4ft deep trenches. MUCH cheaper than drilling… The payout on my geothermal installation is 6.8 years with the govt. subsidy, or 9 without it. Last time I was at the White House, the south lawn and /or the Ellipse would do just fine for burying the proper amount of pipe to keep the White House toasty in the winter and cool in the summer.

    Link to this

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