Changing Cities: Where Are the Solar Panels Mr. President?


America is in the midst of something of a solar resurgence, but not at the White House.

On June 20, 1979 President Jimmy Carter installed 32 solar panels, used to heat water, on the White House roof. In 1986 under the Reagan administration those panels were taken down for a routine roof resurfacing and never returned. However, in 2010, President Obama announced he was bringing solar panels back to the White House roof, which the administration said were slated for installation by the spring of 2011.

But as 2012 winds down, the panels - which the Department of Energy had said would likely produce 19,700 kilowatt hours of electricity a year, more than twice the electricity used by the average Washington home - have still not been installed, and many are asking where are they Mr. President?

In a bid to raise attention to the issue, author and climate activist Bill McKibben tried to hand deliver the Carter administration's solar panels to the White House two years ago. McKibben had a sit-down with White House officials, and even appeared on the "Late Show With David Letterman" pleading his case for the panels to be returned.

When the Obama administration announced they were indeed installing new panels McKibben was excited, suggesting that as a national role model, solar panels on the White House could inspire people across the country to follow suit.

"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 wrote at the time.

But after two years and still no panels adorning the White House roof, McKibben's excitement has morphed into disappointment.

When asked by ABC News about the status of the panels, the White House said "they are in the procurement phase." The only solar panels currently on the White House grounds are ones President George W. Bush put on a maintenance building to warm the swimming pool.

"Somehow using 1970s technology, Jimmy Carter managed to get it up on the roof. The administration promised it would be up by the last day of Spring 2011, but the last time I walked by there was no sign of anything," McKibben told ABC News. "It's a reminder of what a low priority global warming has been for the administration."

In 1979, Carter predicted at the dedication ceremony of the White House solar system that by 2000 solar panels like the one on the roof would either be supplying cheap, efficient energy or "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."

During his administration huge strides were taken in curbing the country's dependence on foreign source of energy, including investing heavily in renewable power. But with a shift of administrations and the new Reagan era, research and development budgets for renewable energy were slashed and the Department of Energy eliminated tax breaks for solar and wind projects.

Carter's worries about his solar panels ending up in the museum proved prescient. Half the panels were taken by the Unity College cafeteria in Maine, but the other half did indeed end up as museum pieces, now housed in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, the Carter Library, and the Solar Science and Technology Museum in Dezhou, China.

Yes, that's right China, which seems a bit symbolic, since China now produces close to 80 percent of the world's solar water heaters.

While solar at the White House may be a hot button issue in the wake of the scandal around the failure of Solyndra after it received a $535 million federal loan, it should be noted that the solar industry is actually expanding quickly in the United States, and under the Obama administration solar is having a real resurgence, helping lift the cloud that has surrounded the industry.

"As the costs of solar energy have continued to drop, the United States has seen tremendous growth in solar energy installations," DOE spokeswoman Jen Stutsman told ABC News. "Over the last four years, solar energy in the U.S. has more than doubled and the industry now employs 100,000 American workers - in design, construction, installation, manufacturing and more,"

Though the Solyndra affair has been a rallying cry for opponents of investing in alternative energy, the investment in the company represented less than 1 percent of the DOE portfolio.

Around the country the Obama administration is fast-tracking solar projects on public land. Solar zones have been established in six states, helping to expedite permitting of solar on public land.

Before Obama took office, there were no solar projects on public land. Now 17 have been approved, with the potential to supply power for 7 million homes. It's what the administration calls a landscape approach. Instead of letting the solar power industry grow organically, the administration has been carefully planning where to best zone the projects - generally choosing zones that have abundant sunshine and easy access to transmission lines to deliver power.

According to a recent report from the Solar Energy Industry Association 2012 has been a comeback year for solar. There has been a dramatic reduction in the cost of solar helping to fuel this solar resurgence, and solar installation has increased by 116 percent from Q1 to Q2 of this year.