Time to bring back the solar Mr. President

Since moving to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. just three months ago, President Obama and the First Lady have added their personal touch to the White House landscape. There is an organic vegetable garden on the South Lawn, a gleaming new swing Set, and let’s not forget about dying the White House fountain green in honor of St. Patrick’s Day.

Though the fountain water is clear again, Obama can make the White House permanently “green” by bringing Jimmy Carter’s solar panels back.

With oil prices again on the rise and energy legislation pending in Congress, now is the time for Obama to highlight the importance of renewable energy to power our economy, curb the emission of climate changing greenhouse gases, and reduce our dependence on imported fuel.

President Carter had solar panels installed on the White House roof in 1977, the same year he established the Department of Energy in response to the oil embargo four years earlier, which highlighted America’s dependence on foreign energy. The energy generated from the solar panels powered the water heaters located in the White House residence.

There was barely enough time to draw a warm bath before President Reagan removed the solar panels after taking office in 1980. The early 80s were not a particularly promising time for solar energy. Solar tax deductions introduced by Carter were not renewed during this period and the Solar Energy Research Institute had its budget slashed by almost 80 percent.

Solar energy was quietly reintroduced to the White House grounds in 2002. Small scale panels were installed on a maintenance building to provide electricity and hot water. A solar energy system was also installed on the White House cabana to heat President Bush’s pool and spa. The panels were placed out of plain view and the White House issued no press releases on the installations. There was scant media coverage of the solar energy systems and what little coverage there was came about six months after the installations were completed.

Obama should take the opposite approach. Solar panels should be placed conspicuously on the White House roof to draw attention to his cap-and-trade plan, which has attracted opposition in Congress across party lines, and the critical need for a clean energy revolution.

Obama should also use this opportunity to showcase 21st century clean energy technology and current research initiatives in the renewable power sector. Solar energy alone has come a long way from the 500 kilowatts produced worldwide when panels were first installed at the White House in 1977. Global production of solar energy now generates over 2,500 megawatts of renewable power to fuel a cleaner world economy.

At the same time, although technological advancements in clean energy are occurring on a massive scale, continued innovation will only happen if demand increases for renewables. Federal stimulus dollars directed at spurring renewable energy research and development should help lower the cost of equipment like solar panels and encourage average citizens to follow Obama’s lead by generating their own green electricity.

The passage of historic federal climate change legislation may not be feasible over the coming months. When summer arrives and the hot sun and oppressive humidity dominate the news, however, solar panels on the White House roof can serve as shining symbols of the homegrown power harnessed by renewable energy. Perhaps as Obama is wading in the White House pool, he will catch a glimpse of the solar panels lining his home’s roof and spot a choice location for a wind turbine.

Jason Marshall is a resident of Savin Hill and a member of the Boston Bar Association’s Telecommunications and Energy Law Committee.