Defying Reagan, Obama Returns Solar Panels to the White House

Now that the tedium of the 2012 campaign is over, President Obama is making good on his 2010 pledge to put solar panels on top of the White House.

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Now that the tedium of the 2012 campaign is over, President Obama is making good on his 2010 pledge to put solar panels on top of the White House. The panels (American-made, of course) will be the second set the building has ever seen. The first ones were removed when Ronald Reagan was president, which may not surprise you.

It's one of the reasons that Obama probably wasn't in a hurry to install the panels last year. Scientific American told the story of the 32 panels removed by Reagan a few years ago. Those had been installed by President Jimmy Carter. "In the year 2000," Carter said when they were put up in 1979, "this solar water heater behind me, which is being dedicated today, will still be here supplying cheap, efficient energy."

Well, no, it wouldn't be. Far from lasting 20 years, it didn't last 10. In his second term, President Reagan stripped away Carter's fossil fuel-reduction strategies, born in part from the oil crisis that marred the Democrat's term in office. Reagan eliminated tax breaks for renewable energy, sliced R&D budgets, and, in 1986, took down the solar power system.

The October 2010 announcement, from Obama's then-Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, that panels would be returned to the roof fit the political moment. The president ran on a plan to expand green energy investment in 2008, including training programs for renewable companies in the stimulus once he was in office. He made a number of visits to clean energy firms, hoping to bolster the sector.

Less than a year later, however, Solyndra had gone bankrupt. The California solar firm became a symbol of the administration's efforts in the green space and — unfairly — a point of criticism for government investment on the whole. Which of course was because the reelection was 14 months away. Making a symbolic demonstration of his support for clean energy in that moment, much less mirroring Jimmy Carter, quickly slipped down the priority list.

Environmentalists, sensing a point of leverage, began calling for Obama to make good on the pledge — calls that continued even after election day.

In the years since Reagan stripped away Carter's addition, solar panels have dropped significantly in cost and increased substantially in efficiency — so much so that there's little debate that they can be a substantial money saver on energy costs over the long run. In fact, once the installation at the White House is done, Obama will become at least the second elected official in Washington to live in a solar-powered home. Rep. Thomas Massie, a conservative Republican from Kentucky, lives in a home in that state which is powered with solar energy, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Mr. Massie took a one-week course to learn how to build a timber-framed house on his farm, which he bought from his in-laws. He used a bulldozer to fell the 600 trees he used and assembled the solar electricity system himself. He later acquired 50 head of grass-fed cattle.

Massie won his seat in a special election last year, taking his office on the same day that Obama won reelection. Had he been around earlier as a solar power role model, perhaps those solar panels would have been replaced on the White House roof much sooner.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.