The White House (finally) goes solar

McClatchy Washington BureauMay 9, 2014 

 The White House is on the solar grid, President Barack Obama will announce today -- nearly four years after then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu pledged that solar panels and a solar water heater would be installed on the White House roof.

The American-made panels are on the First Family's residence as part of Obama's "commitment to lead by example to increase the use of clean energy in the U.S.," said Matt Lehrich, a spokesman at the White House.

The announcement comes as Obama appears later today at a Wal Mart near San Francisco where he'll tout a raft of administration initiatives aimed at boosting the use of alternative energy.

The push comes as Obama sounds the alert on climate change -- a message that resounds with his liberal base, but faces opposition from congressional Republicans and is unnerving Senate Democrats facing reelection in conservative-leaning states.

The panels on the residence are a part of an energy retrofit that will improve the overall energy efficiency of the building -- and "demonstrate that historic buildings can incorporate solar energy and energy efficiency upgrades," Lehrich said.

The upgrades are estimated to pay for themselves in energy savings over the next eight years (as long as the next president doesn't remove them. President Jimmy Carter installed 32 panels in 1979 when an Arab oil embargo spiked fuel prices, but President Ronald Reagan removed the panels in 1986 when the roof was resurfaced. George W. Bush had some installed on a maintenance building and on the president's cabana to heat water for the outdoor White House pool.)

The retrofit includes the installation of energy-saving equipment such as updated building controls and variable speed fans, as well as 6.3 kilowatts of solar generation, Lehrich said.

As any homeowner knows, renovations can take time: Chu -- who is no longer energy secretary - in October 2010 promised that panels would be going up on the White House.

"As we move toward a clean energy economy, the White House will lead by example," Chu said at the time. "It's been a long time since we've had them up there."

But by the next year, the Energy Department said the project was mired in the "competitive procurement process."

Indeed, a White House video promo-ing the panels features Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

"I am very bullish on the future of solar energy as a key part of our clean energy future," he says in the video.

The size of the array of panels used on the roof is about the same size as the average American house, White House usher James Doherty says in the video -- since there are security concerns, the entire roof could not be covered with panels.

At a Mountain View, Calif. Wal Mart (which has solar panels atop its roof) Obama will announced more than 300 private and public sector solar power and energy efficiency commitments the White House says will create jobs and cut carbon pollution.

And he'll announce a Department of Energy program to increase the use of high efficiency outdoor lighting, replacing more than 500,000 outdoor lighting poles in towns and cities, starting with Detroit, the Kansas City metro area, West Palm Beach, Little Rock and Huntington Beach.

He will also announce that the Department of Energy's Solar Instructor training program will support training programs at community colleges to 50,000 students enter the solar industry by 2020.

Obama also will announce an additional $2 billion goal in federal energy efficiency upgrades to federal buildings over the next 3 years.

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