White House to go solar after Unity students visit

Posted Oct. 05, 2010, at 11:30 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The most famous house in America is getting solar panels on its roof, a month after Unity College student environmental activists drove to the White House to urge the president to make a greater commitment to solar energy.

Elated students who went on the solar road trip said that it was welcome news.

“I think it’s great they’re putting solar panels up,” wildlife major Jean Altomare of East Granby, Conn., said Tuesday. “That’s something that should have happened 30 years ago — but I’ll take it now.”

The White House announced Tuesday morning that more than 30 years since Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the White House roof and nearly 25 years after Ronald Reagan had them removed, demonstration solar panels will be put on the first family’s residence.

They will provide the Obamas with hot water and part of their electricity, and will serve to show that American solar technologies are “available, reliable and ready for installation in homes throughout the country,” according to a statement from the Department of Energy.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in a news release that “this project reflects President Obama’s strong commitment to U.S. leadership in solar energy and the jobs it will create here at home. Deploying solar energy technologies across the country will help America lead the global economy for years to come.”

A 30 percent federal tax credit and various state and local government incentives are available for residential solar power. The Department of Energy has information about state solar incentives at www.dsireusa.org.

Bill McKibben, the founder of the group 350.org, which plans a “global work party” on Sunday for local climate change solutions, started a letter-writing campaign to get the White House to go solar. He drove to Washington from Maine last month with one of the original Carter panels and several Unity College students to un-derscore the idea.

Unity College acquired the Carter solar panels from government storage in 1991, refurbished them and drew heat from them on the cafeteria roof until 2003, when the panels reached the end of their functional life.

Recalling on Tuesday their trip to the White House with the vintage panel, several Unity students said the administration had refused to accept it and didn’t seem to take their request to go solar very seriously.

“It was really disappointing,” said Jamie Nemocek of Brookline, N.H.

Altomare agreed.

“Midway through that meeting, I realized we were banging our heads against the wall,” she said. “I just felt that I had failed future generations. It was a crushing disappointment — I flat-out cried for 45 minutes.”

But hearing about the White House’s apparent change of heart Tuesday morning was invigorating, she said.

“We did it. It was us and the 43,000 signatures, and the demonstrations,” Altomare said. “It’s really going to show America and the whole world that we’re really committed to this effort.”

McKibben said that if the project is anything like Michelle Obama’s White House garden, which boosted seed sales nationwide, it could be the start of a lot more solar energy use.

“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,” he said.

McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this report.

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