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Observations

Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

More Solar Panels at the White House

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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.

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

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