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



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."

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

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