Energy Secretary Steve Chu announced the solar project in a blog post Tuesday. He noted that the government has invested heavily in developing and installing solar energy systems nationwide, so it's about time for a project to demonstrate some technical achievements in the field.
"The project will show that American solar technology is available, reliable, and ready to install in homes throughout the country," Chu wrote.
Solar Power, from Carter to Bush
The last time solar panels lined the White House roof was when Jimmy Carter was president. The panels were used to heat water for the White House kitchen, rather than generating electricity, according to the Smithsonian. President Ronald Reagan removed the panels during his administration.
The next president to embrace solar was George W. Bush, who installed three electric and heating systems without much fanfare. The panels were placed on the roof of a maintenance building on the White House grounds, but not on the mansion itself. The solar electric system featured silicon solar panels from Evergreen Solar (ESLR) in Massachusetts.
Installing solar panels on the White House has been a cause célèbre for solar energy advocates. President Obama faced growing pressure from, among others, the Solar Energy Industries Association and 350.org, an advocacy group that focuses on global warming issues. Author Bill McKibben, part of 350.org, went on the David Letterman show to promote the group's effort to get Obama to install solar.
Obama has positioned himself as a champion for solar power, and he has showed up at groundbreaking ceremonies across the country to tout new solar energy equipment factories or solar power plants. The government has given a $535 million loan to Solyndra, a solar panel maker in California, to build a factory near its headquarters. BrightSource Energy in Oakland, Calif., will also receive a $1.37 billion loan to build a solar power plant in California that will use mirrors to collect and heat water for generating steam, which in turn runs generators that produce electricity.
The Department of Energy, which is responsible for promoting and funding solar technology development, also has been installing solar, including a recent, 1.6-megawatt system at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado.
The U.S. Department of Energy will select the solar energy systems through a competitive process, said spokeswoman Jen Stutsman. The system to generate solar electricity could range from 5-kilowatt to 15-kilowatt. (For compairson's sake, a single-family home in states such as California typically sports a 3- to 5-kilowatt system.) Stutsman said the solar water heating system could cover 150 square feet of the White House roof.