Solar cells for electricity, hot water to top White House

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 5, 2010 

WASHINGTON — The most famous house in America is going solar.

The White House soon will have solar panels to supply the first family's hot water and some of its electricity, the Department of Energy announced Tuesday.

It's not yet clear whether the panels will be visible to tourists from below, but environmentalists and clean energy advocates hope that the buzz will give solar a boost, just as first lady Michelle Obama's vegetable garden got more people buying seeds.

The White House solar panels will be a demonstration project to show that "American solar technologies are available, reliable and ready for installation in homes throughout the country," the Energy Department said in a statement.

"This project reflects President Obama's strong commitment to U.S. leadership in solar energy and the jobs it will create here at home. Deploying solar energy technologies across the country will help America lead the global economy for years to come," Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in a statement.

Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org — a campaign to find climate change solutions in communities around the world — said in a statement that the White House "did the right thing."

"If it has anything like the effect of the White House garden, it could be a trigger for a wave of solar installations across the country and around the world," he said.

President Jimmy Carter installed 32 solar panels on the roof of the White House above the Oval Office in 1979 to heat water in the staff kitchen, according to the National Museum of American History in Washington, which acquired one of them. President Ronald Reagan removed them in 1986.

McKibben obtained one of the old White House panels and drove it from Maine to Washington last month, trying to push the administration toward taking action on climate change.

After Tuesday's announcement, White House officials said solar had been in the plans since the early days of the administration.

Chu said in a blog post Tuesday that the new solar panels would be on the roof by the end of next spring.

The Energy Department will take bids from companies that want to install the panels and water heater. Among its criteria will be how well a company "showcases American technology, products and knowhow," said Christine Glunz, a spokeswoman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

The department expects the solar-powered system to produce about 19,700 kilowatt hours of electricity a year. Based on Washington commercial rates, that would mean an electricity bill savings for a typical household of $2,300 per year. The additional savings on hot water would be about $1,000.

The department is investing in the next generation of solar power, and it says that innovation and new technologies will make solar energy cost-competitive with conventional electricity across the country.

Solar today generates less than 1 percent of the nation's electricity. The costs of photovoltaic panels have been declining, however. The solar industry says that scaling up the use of solar would lower the cost further and make it competitive with coal and natural gas.

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