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Mr. President, Reinstall Those Solar Panels

An activist asks Obama to bring renewable energy back to the White House.


President Carter unveils the latest solar technology in 1979 to power the White House. (350.org)

Jimmy Carter had a thing or two to say about energy. "We can't go on consuming 40 percent more energy than we produce," Carter said from the Oval Office in 1979. He warned that America's energy dependence made us weaker to our enemies and urged Congress to act on clean domestic energy or face a future of rising prices and less international security. To drive home the point, he had a series of solar panels installed on the White House.

Sometime during the next eight years, they came down and never went back up. No one quite remembers why. There's a rumor that President Reagan had the house repainted and never got around to reinstalling them.

But it doesn't really matter to environmental activist Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org. He just wants them put back up; and he has a West Wing meeting scheduled for tomorrow to ask nicely. "We want to make the point that it's really time to get to work on this stuff," says McKibben. "We knew how to do it 30 years ago, so why aren't we doing it now?"

The aim is mostly symbolic. The same way Michelle Obama's vegetable garden launched a discussion about healthful eating and locally grown produce, McKibben hopes a White House endorsement will breathe new life into the slow-growing solar industry. After the first lady's garden kick-off got considerable press, seed sales rose by 30 percent, according to McKibben. Solar company Sungevity, which has offered to equip the executive complex with a set of state-of-the-art panels, hopes a presidential nod could spur the same kind of boost.

The White House says staffers will meet with the group "to discuss support for renewable energy." But it's also a bit of a no-brainer. For a president who's talked lots about clean energy and environmental prudence, installing some solar panels on his house would throw a ceremonial bone to the increasingly frustrated environmental community. If they were actually hooked up and plugged in, they might also cut down on the house's presumably high electricity costs.

The only foreseeable drawback? Comparisons to the one-term Carter administration is likely something that at the moment the West Wing is trying to avoid.

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