Symbols matter. When Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the White House in 1979, they weren’t today’s efficient electricity-generating PV panels (they produced only hot water) and the goal wasn’t to make 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue energy-independent. Nevertheless, during a historical period remembered for oil shocks and gas lines, this was a way of sending the message that changes were needed in America’s energy habits and that the President was ready to lead by example.
The symbolism was just as clear in 1986, when the Reagan White House removed those solar panels. Federal renewable energy tax credits had been rescinded, gas was cheap again, and U.S. energy goals had been refocused on maintaining access to the world’s oil—which is to say that they had essentially been militarized.
Pictures of the two occasions were and are worth about a billion barrels’ worth of words.
Today there is an effort under way to convince the current White House occupant-in-chief to use symbolism to underscore his intention to, in his own words, “seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels.” Oakland CA-based Sungevity has offered to donate and install a home solar system on the roof of the White House, and a “Globama” campaign (www.solaronthewhitehouse.com/) is being cheerfully waged to convince the Obamas that this is a good idea.
In 2009, Michelle Obama installed a White House garden; over the next year backyard gardens sprouted throughout the U.S. in such numbers that seed companies had a hard time keeping up. Of course, there were other influences at work (I recall hearing something about a recession happening then, not sure what that was all about). Nevertheless, a good and important example was set, and it benefitted the Obamas as much as anyone else: if you’re a politician it’s always good to be seen at the head of the parade rather than chasing it down the street.
For the United States, renewable energy needs to be the Parade of the Century. High-quality deposits of fossil fuels are depleting, forcing extraction industries to adopt ever-more environmentally ruinous methods of getting at deeper or poorer-quality resources (shale gas, deepwater oil, tar sands, lignite, and mountaintop-removal coal). This is already leading to steadily less-affordable and less-reliable energy. Meanwhile the burning of fossil fuels is turning Earth into a different planet from the one on which human civilization developed, and it’s not at all clear that civilization can maintain itself for long in the hotter, far more erratic climate that fossil fuels are producing. The only possible solutions are to use much less energy and to get what we use from non-fossil, ideally renewable, sources. But we don’t have a lot of time in which to make the transition.
In short, we need an enormous program of societal investment, redesign, and retooling; but to get that ball rolling, we need leadership, encouragement, examples—and symbols.
After the past couple of months of crude leakage in the Gulf of Mexico, during which the nation’s overwhelming reliance on oil has become a matter of inescapable concern for just about everyone, the President needs all the PR help he can get—and the nation needs some inspiration. There’s a cheap but useful way Mr. Obama could symbolically put himself at the head of the parade: Solarize the White House.
Lead, Mr. President.
Post Carbon Institute is a partner in the Globama campaign. If you think it's a good idea to put solar panels back on the White House, please sign the petition