Solar panels to be installed at White House

Environmental activist Bill McKibben is getting his wish as Obama administration officials announce the White House will be at least partially powered by solar energy.

Earlier this month McKibben met with Amelia Salzman, associate director of policy outreach at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, to discuss installing solar panels on the first family's residence. For security reasons, what type of energy source powers most of the White House is not public information, according to an administration official. And what percentage of electricity the residence will get from its solar panels is on lockdown due to security reasons.

McKibben, who founded the environmental organization 350.org and is one of the most outspoken proponents of drastic action on climate change, told CongressDaily Tuesday he had been given no indication at that time the White House was going to install solar panels. An administration official noted Tuesday's announcement has nothing to do with outside organizations and that discussions to install solar panels on the White House have been under way for quite some time.

"I don't want to get ahead of the architects around here," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in February. "I doubt a small wind turbine is in the offing. But I will check on -- I know there has been some discussion of solar panels."

McKibben said the solar panels' installation could have the same effect on clean energy that First Lady Michelle Obama's garden has had on healthy eating and local foods.

"If it has anything like the effect of the White House garden, it could be a trigger for a wave of solar installations across the country and around the world," McKibben said.

But his cause -- and the environmental movement at large -- has a steep climb integrating renewable sources into the U.S. energy mix. Less than 8 percent of the energy mix is renewable energy, and less than 1 percent is solar-powered. Congressional efforts to incentivize clean energy have stalled and are unlikely to make any headway before this session ends. The administration is making progress issuing renewable loan guarantees, but complaints have subsisted that the Energy Department is not doling them out fast enough.

In an extensive interview with National Journal this month, McKibben said given the bleak landscape for environmental groups in Washington, they should focus more on voters around the country and less on whip counts on Capitol Hill.

Tuesday's announcement is timed with other key clean energy events. The White House is hosting a symposium on energy and environment issues this week on the Washington campus of the George Washington University (Council on Environmental Quality Chair Nancy Sutley and Energy Secretary Steven Chu made the announcement Tuesday at that conference). Indeed, this whole month the administration will be touting clean energy projects as part of Energy Awareness Month. An environmental movement spearheaded by McKibben's group reaches a climax on Sunday when millions of people around the world will advocate for action on climate change.

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