Solar Panels Make a White House Comeback

Putting solar panels back on the White House is a nice gesture, but there are real climate problems that need solving.

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Solar panels cover cars parked in a lot nearby Centennial Olympic Park, Tuesday, July 2, 2013, in Atlanta. The Georgia chapter of Americans For Prosperity, founded by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, wants Georgia's utility regulators to reject a solar energy plan in Georgia. But an Associated Press review ahead of a vote on the issue finds that it has used misleading figures to build its case.

The White House solar panels are back! These will be the first such panels at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue since Jimmy Carter's were tossed aside by Ronald Reagan in 1986 (though the George W. Bush administration did install a solar-powered system to heat, among other things, the White House swimming pool).

According to administration officials, the project, "which will help demonstrate that historic buildings can incorporate solar energy and energy efficiency upgrades, is estimated to pay for itself in energy savings over the next eight years." As far as symbolism goes, this is certainly a laudable move, attempting to display the cost-benefits of alternative energy. And it doesn't hurt that it fulfills a promise the Obama administration made three years ago. All in all, good for the president.

But it also says something about the sad state of the energy and climate change debate in the U.S. that installing solar panels on the White House, more than 30 years after Carter did it first, is still noteworthy. The administration's move also follows a slew of bad news regarding our warming planet and the lack of interest almost anyone in a position of power has in reversing those trends.

[See a collection of political cartoons on energy policy.]

For starters, data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed that global surface temperatures in June were above the 20th century average for the 340th month in a row. Anyone under the age of 28 has literally never been alive during a month in which global surface temperatures were below that average.

The United Nations also reported last month that the first decade of the 21st century saw more countries breaking their temperature records than ever before. Last year, the average global sea level was the highest it's been since measurements began two decades ago. In light of that depressing string of statistics, solar panels on the White House is the very least that should be done.

Is there any good news? Well, the cost of solar panels just keeps coming down, according to an annual report published this week by the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. In the last few years, solar capacity has jumped as costs have decreased, giving some reason to be optimistic about the future of solar as a viable energy source, as this chart shows:

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should the Government Invest in Green Energy?]

Of course, climate inaction is not really the fault of the Obama administration. Obama even paid admirable attention to the issue in his second inaugural address, saying, "We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations."

But he's stuck with a Republican House that not only refuses to take concrete action on climate change, but wants to undo even symbolic gestures towards environmental preservation by, for example, bringing Styrofoam cups back to the Congressional cafeteria for no real reason. Even an attempt to promote energy-efficient lightbulbs has been grabbed by the GOP as an opportunity for demagoguery.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Between a recalcitrant House and a Senate where too many members of the president's own party are beholden to coal interests, even the best of intentions run aground on the shores of legislative reality. So perhaps the best we can hope for at the moment is the symbolic gesture of re-installing solar panels on the White House.

But it's worth remembering what Carter said back in 1979 about his own solar array: "A generation from now, this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it can be just a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people – harnessing the power of the sun to enrich our lives as we move away from our crippling dependence on foreign oil." Sadly, the former is the case at the moment.

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