White House’s promise to install solar by summer remains unmet

White House’s promise to install solar by summer remains unmetLast fall, under pressure from 350.org’s Put Solar Back on the White House campaign, Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Steven Chu said that the White House’s roof would house a photovoltaic array to provide power to the White House by summer 2011.

Chu also said the roof would have solar hot water heating—a nod to the White House’s original solar array, installed in 1973 by then President Jimmy Carter. Those panels were taken down under orders from President Ronald Reagan.

So the question now is: Where are the new panels?

On June 20, the DOE’s Director of the SunShot Initiative and Solar Energy Technologies Program Ramamoorthy Ramesh wrote a blog post about the effort.

“Energy Secretary Steven Chu and CEQ Chair Nancy Sutley announced that the Energy Department would lead a project to install American solar photovoltaic panels and a solar hot water heater on the roof of the White House,” he said. “The Energy Department remains on the path to complete the White House solar demonstration project, in keeping with our commitment, and we look forward to sharing more information—including additional details on the timing of this project—after the competitive procurement process is completed.”

But did Obama pass the buck by having the DOE coordinate the installation?

“Well, he certainly didn't manage to get across the idea that he was deeply enthusiastic about this. All of us who've ever held a job know that when the boss is really into something, it usually gets done. On time,” said 350.org founder and environmentalist Bill McKibben. “They’re being somewhat untransparent.”

“Translated from the bureaucratic, I think this means ‘we're working on it, just not very hard,” he wrote in a response to the DOE post.

He said that if the Obama Administration saw it as a priority, they probably would have completed the process already.

“Nine months is a long time. We’d think they’d be able to do it in the time it takes people to make a baby,” said 350.org spokesperson Jamie Henn. “We’re confident the panels will get up.”

Henn isn’t disappointed in the administration’s clean energy policies, but he does think the president should go a bit further.

“This administration is doing a lot to promote clean energy, but we’d really like to see the President step up and show that clean energy is really going to be a priority moving forward,” Henn said. “What better symbol could there be than a picture of the President on the roof with a construction belt [with solar panels].”

It’s not that installing solar is a risky bet for Obama right now. A recent Yale study showed that over 91 percent of the country’s citizens want more solar, according to Henn.

There’s also some worry that the administration's positions on fossil fuel technology included opening up Wyoming’s Powder River Basin for coal mining, and it’s pending decision on the Tar Sands Pipeline from Canada to refineries in the U.S.

“As much as the administration is doing to support clean energy, they’re undercutting themselves by doing dirty energy at the same time,” Henn said.

The organization hasn’t decided to take any further advocacy actions to promote solar on the White House at this point.

“We will keep an eye on it, but we have bigger fish to fry; this was an effort to get Obama to do something easy,” McKibben said.

It is, however, weighing its options to increase political support of solar, like a campaign to have Governors put solar on rooftops on Governors’ mansions.

“People are excited about moving to renewable energy, and they are excited to see political leaders take action,” Henn said.