Here comes the sun: White House to go solar

Solar power is coming to President Barack Obama’s house.

The most famous residence in the United States, which has already boosted its green credentials by planting a vegetable garden, plans to install solar panels atop the White House’s living quarters. The solar panels are to be installed by early 2011, and will heat water for the first family and supply some electricity.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced the plans Tuesday in Washington at a conference of local, state, academic and nonprofit leaders aimed at identifying how the federal government can improve its environmental performance.

Former Presidents Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush both tapped the sun during their days in the White House. Carter in the late 1970s spent $30,000 on a solar water-heating system for West Wing offices. Bush’s solar systems powered a maintenance building and some of the mansion, and heated water for the swimming pool.

Obama, who has championed renewable energy, has been under increasing pressure to lead by example by installing solar at the White House, something officials said has been under consideration since he first took office.

The decision perhaps has more import now after legislation to reduce global warming pollution died in the Senate, despite the White House’s support. Obama has vowed to try again on a smaller scale.

Last month, global warming activists with carried one of Carter’s solar panels – which were removed in 1986 – from Unity College in the state of Maine to Washington to urge Obama to put solar panels on his roof. It was part of a global campaign to persuade world leaders to install solar on their homes. After a meeting with White House officials, they left Washington without a commitment.

Bill McKibben, the founder of the group, said Tuesday the administration did the right thing.

“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 in a statement.

On Wednesday, the president of the Maldives, Mohammed Nasheed, will install solar panels on his official residence, McKibben said.

What was unclear was how much the White House solar project would cost, and how much fossil fuel-based electricity it would displace since the installation still has to be designed.