Solar Energy at the White House?

When I first saw the press releases stating that a PV system had been installed at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, I couldn’t believe it. The Bush White House going solar? Incredible!

RE Insider – April 14, 2003 Nevertheless, in fact, it’s true. In August 2002, solar electric and solar hot water systems were installed on the White House grounds. When I read about it, you could have knocked me down with a feather! PV System The solar-electric system consists of 167 Evergreen Solar, 51 watt, photovoltaic (PV) modules. (For an article about Evergreen Solar and their modules, see Home Power Magazine #93, page 72.) This 8.5 KW PV array feeds three SMA 2.5 KW Sunny Boy utility-intertie inverters. The energy produced by this array enters the local utility grid on the White House grounds, where it is net metered at about US$0.07 per KWH by Potomac Electric Power, the local utility. The installation features an extensive data acquisition system that monitors the performance of both the PVs and the inverters. During the first four months of operation, this system produced an average of 26.25 KWH per day. Steven Strong of Solar Designs Associates in Harvard, Massachusetts designed the system. One of the reasons that Steven selected Evergreen Solar’s PV modules was that they are American made. Steven said, “Evergreen Solar is the classic, home-grown success story, where a small group of dedicated individuals, starting from modest beginnings in a ‘garage,’ proved the commercial viability of their technology, and subsequently have become a significant player in the global solar market.” The system was installed in three days by Aurora Energy of Annapolis, Maryland, and is located on a maintenance building’s roof in the southwest corner of the White House grounds, not on the actual White House itself. The project was funded by the National Park Service. James Doherty of the National Park Service said, “We don’t view this as an experiment. We believe in these technologies, and they’ve been working for us very successfully. The National Park Service as a whole has long been interested in both sustainable design and renewable energy sources. We also have a mission to lower our energy consumption at all our sites, and we saw an opportunity to do both on the White House grounds.” Solar Hot Water System In addition to the PV system on the grounds, the White House got solar-heated water. Two solar thermal systems provide hot water, one to heat the presidential pool and spa, and another for domestic hot water needs. Day Star Energy Services of Silver Spring, Maryland installed these solar thermal systems. The domestic hot water (DHW) system is mounted on the same roof as the PVs. The spa system is located on the cabana roof by the pool. Both solar hot water systems are of the drainback type. The pool heating system uses building-integrated SunEarth panels. The DHW system uses a more conventional approach—two SunEarth flat panel collectors feeding a storage tank with an internal heat exchanger. The DHW system provides hot water for the cabana and not the main White House building. The Details & the Devil Therein… Once I heard about the PV system on the White House grounds, I immediately began to wonder what it really meant. How much of the buildings’ load was being powered by solar energy? After exhaustive research, I was unable to get any information about how much electricity the White House uses. Perhaps this information is classified for national security reasons. If the White House is similar to other government mansions (Dick Cheney’s, for example, consumes 2.6 MWh annually at a cost of US$186,000 to the taxpayers), then the amount of its energy that comes from the PV array is a miniscule fraction of 1 percent. While I found this conclusion disappointing in light of the thousands of completely solar powered homes owned by Home Power readers, I took heart—at least the White House was taking a step in the right direction. When I tried to find out the cost of the White House’s solar energy systems, I found that this information was also unavailable. What I did discover is that these systems were actually initiated by the Clinton administration, and it took all this time for them to work their way through the morass of federal bureaucracy and to finally be installed. The Future Is in Your Hands It has been said that the truth suffers from too much analysis. In the case of the White House’s solar energy systems, this is most certainly true. The closer I looked, the less excited I became. When I dug deeper into the public archives, I found nothing from President Bush that even acknowledged that these systems exist. No ribbon cutting ceremony, no photo op, no public statement, nada. What the White House solar energy systems have done is reinforce my belief that the future of solar energy lies with the people, not with governments and the big businesses that control governments. Solar energy is nature’s freely offered gift to everyone. The powers that be consider energy to be a commodity to sell, to manipulate, and to go to war over. To ask them to foster solar energy is unrealistic. We, the people, must do this job for ourselves. About the Author: Richard Perez, publishes Home Power Magazine. He can be reached at This
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