Obama agrees to put solar panels on White House

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama has agreed to put new solar panels on the White House roof for the first time since then-President Ronald Reagan withdrew an array in 1986.

U.S. President Barack Obama walks through the Colonnade at the White House in Washington, September 22, 2010. REUTERS/Jim Young

Energy Secretary Steven Chu said on Tuesday that by around late May or early June next year workers will put solar panels that convert sunlight into electricity and a solar hot water heater on the roof of the White House.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve had them up there,” he said at a clean energy conference at George Washington University.

The White House roof will get an estimated 20 to 50 panels that convert light into power. The systems, which will be put on top of the Obama family’s living quarters, will generate more than double the amount of electricity used by the average home in Washington.

The costs will be revealed once the Department of Energy selects a company to install the systems, but the administration said the systems should save about $3,000 a year in fuel bills.

Environmentalists and some businesses criticized Obama when he did not push the Senate hard this year to pass a climate bill that may have spurred development of renewable forms of energy such as wind, solar and geothermal.

Obama told Rolling Stone magazine in late September that future U.S. energy policy may have to be done in “chunks” rather than through sweeping legislation.

A renewable power bill faces an uphill battle next year, but Obama is taking steps to bring renewable power to the federal government.

Former President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat like Obama, was the first to put solar panels on the White House roof. Carter unveiled 32 solar thermal panels in 1979, during an oil crisis spurred by strife in oil producer Iran.

Reagan, his Republican successor, then had the solar panels removed during repairs. The roof of the country’s most famous residence has been panel-free ever since, although in 2003 former President George W. Bush quietly put panels on a maintenance shed to generate power for the grounds and solar equipment to help heat the swimming pool and cabana.

The Obama administration has trumpeted solar.

“Around the world the White House is a symbol of freedom and democracy,” Chu said. “It should also be a symbol of American commitment to a clean energy future.”

Last month, environmental activist and author Bill McKibben led a group of students from Maine in a van fired by biodiesel to bring one of the original Carter solar panels to the White House. They challenged Obama to re-install the panel, which still works.

An official met the group, but the administration decided against putting it back up.

McKibben said the move to put solar on the White House could spark renewable energy in a similar way that First Lady Michelle Obama’s White House vegetable garden boosted seed sales.

“It could be a trigger for a wave of solar installations across the country and around the world,” McKibben said.

Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and David Gregorio