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The White House Goes Solar. Why Now?
WASHINGTON—With all the attention lavished on a Tuesday announcement about the White House going solar, observers might have thought President Obama had single-handedly passed comprehensive climate legislation.
Clearly, 350.org founder Bill McKibben and other advocates of renewables are elated to know that the residential quarters at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will be outfitted with solar panels and a solar hot water heater soon after a competitive bidding process is completed.
But why this small sun-powered step took so long—and if it indicates that “No Drama Obama” is ready to borrow President Lyndon B. Johnson’s arm-twisting swagger in an 11th-hour push for climate and energy legislation—is muddier territory.
“At face value, it seems he changed his mind and is making a walk-the-walk statement with his family,” offers law professor Patrick Parenteau, who specializes in climate change at the Vermont Law School. “But whether it means anything on the policy front is anybody’s guess.”
The White House news did break amidst a swirl of other green initiatives. For one, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar just approved the first large-scale solar projects on public lands in California, and the Obama Administration continues its thrust for even tighter fuel economy standards for cars and trucks.
In an interview with SolveClimate News, Parentau explained that President Obama squandered enormous political capital by not acting immediately on climate change legislation. And the outlook for next year isn’t too encouraging, with cap-and-trade–bashing Republicans seemingly poised to gain a majority in the House and stake out more seats in the Senate.
“If Obama has a fault, it’s that he’s too reasonable and not willing to bare-knuckle it when that’s what a situation calls for,” the professor said. “I blame his advisers. He must be getting conflicting advice on how to play environmental and energy issues, and that’s why you’re seeing this erratic behavior—kind of a schizophrenia in the White House.”
At the beginning of Obama’s term, Parenteau said, everybody was wowed by an environmental team featuring the likes of Carol Browner as energy czar, John Holdren as science adviser and Steven Chu leading the Energy Department. He speculated that perhaps an enforcer such as just-departed Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel might have frowned on being more aggressive with energy and climate efforts.
It was Energy Secretary Chu who delivered the White House solar news Tuesday morning—coincidentally, just a few days after Emanuel left Washington to begin his Chicago mayoral campaign.
On a glum and overcast morning in the nation’s capital, Chu joined Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, at CEQ’s GreenGov Symposium to make the solar announcement. Renewable energy on the rooftop of what is arguably the country’s most famous house is part of a DOE demonstration project designed to emphasize that American solar technologies are available, reliable and ready.
Chu and Sutley noted that the news came on the one-year anniversary of an executive order issued by President Obama that called on the federal government to lead by example toward a clean energy economy and reduce, measure and report greenhouse gas pollution.
If the announcement is a signal that Obama is trying to salvage pieces of climate legislation on the campaign trail, and then finesse some sort of amalgam through during the post-Nov. 2 lame duck session, Parenteau is encouraged.
"I don’t know how our political system puts Humpty Dumpty back on the wall,” he said. “But now’s the time to make the push. This is another test to find out if Obama has any juice left.
“Lately, he’s been talking about moving legislation incrementally, doing it in chunks. Well, he could start by making a major push for the renewable electricity standard. Then he can go out on the campaign trail and tell people what is going to happen on the energy and climate front.”
No doubt McKibben feels somewhat vindicated. The White House spurned the activist in early September when he asked President Obama to reinstall solar panels salvaged long ago from the West Wing. The panels were put up in 1979 at President Jimmy Carter’s behest and subsequently removed by President Ronald Reagan—who also let federal renewable energy subsidies expire. They were donated to Maine’s Unity College in the 1990s.
After Tuesday's news, the nonprofit 350.org was so overwhelmed with media inquiries that it released a diplomatic statement from McKibben, a scholar in residence with Middlebury College’s Environmental Studies Program in Vermont.
“The White House did the right thing, and for the right reasons. They listened to the Americans who asked for solar on their roof, and they listened to the scientists and engineers who told them this is the path to the future,” McKibben said. “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.”
In addition, online petitions surfaced as clean-energy backers encouraged the chief executive to act. For instance, Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, asked the president to go solar during an Earth Day ceremony at the White House in April.
“Obama needs to hear that the most important piece of his legacy is for him to do something significant about energy and environment,” Parenteau said. “I don’t who is going to tell him that.”
He then paused before suggesting that it’s a likely role for the first lady, who he suspected was already an instigator with the rooftop solar decision.
“Who knows,” Parenteau added with a laugh. “Maybe Michelle convinced him. I’m sure there’s some pillow talk on this issue.”
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