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Nearly 60 years after the first solar cell was invented, the White House residence will finally get some of its power from the sun.

When President Jimmy Carter had 32 solar panels placed on the roof of the White House in 1979, he predicted that by the year 2000 they would “either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it can be just a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people.”

Though Carter’s panels did little more than make a statement and heat water, President Ronald Reagan had them removed less than two years later and the first foray into using renewable energy to power the White House ended. Over the next few decades, some of the panels ended up heating a college cafeteria in Maine, and a few became museum pieces, proving Carter’s worst fears true.

In 2002, George W. Bush’s administration quietly installed a grid of 167 solar panels that became the first to power actual operations on the White House grounds, including a maintenance building and the swimming pool.

This week, the Obama administration will add 20-50 panels to power the White House residence for the first time ever as “a part of an energy retrofit that will improve the overall energy efficiency of the building.”

Energy Secretary Steven Chu and White House Council on Environmental Quality chair Nancy Sutley had announced in 2010 that the White House would go solar. But that promise took more than three years to fulfill. Why?

Perhaps it takes that long to get construction on the White House approved. Maybe the White House was desperate to avoid any connections to Solyndra, the failed solar company that the GOP tried to make the face of the stimulus to distract from the fact that the clean energy investments in the law were actually wildly successful.

Or maybe, at the same time Mitt Romney was trying to convince the world that he was the next Ronald Reagan, the president didn’t want to associate himself with Jimmy Carter (or George W. Bush).

“Better late than never — in truth, no one should ever have taken down the panels Jimmy Carter put on the roof way back in 1979,” said Bill McKibben, head of 350.org, one of the groups that pressed the administration to go solar. “But it’s very good to know that once again the country’s most powerful address will be drawing some of that power from the sun.”

Activists are hoping that this is another sign that the president may be on his way to rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline.

Photo: Tom Lohdan via Flickr.com

 

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