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White House Timetable Slips for Solar Roof

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President Jimmy Carter shows off the then-new solar system on the White House West Wing on June 20, 1979. President Obama's day in the sun will have to wait. (AP Photo/Harvey Georges, File)

Amid a surge of solar energy industry moves aimed at making installations faster, easier, and more affordable, one of the highest-profile rooftop projects is taking longer than hoped.

The Obama administration missed its planned spring 2011 date for putting solar photovoltaic (PV) panels and a heating system atop the White House—an effort meant to boost the profile of the renewable energy technology by bringing it back to the U.S. presidential residence for the first time in 25 years. (See last fall’s announcement at the Green Gov symposium hosted by our Planet Forward partners here.)

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which is managing the project, attributed the delay to the ordinary deliberate pace of the federal government procurement process. And as is typical once the competitive bid and selection process is under way, officials are tight-lipped about their progress, so no further details were immediately available on the reasons for the holdup.

“We’re working on it and hope to move forward as quickly as possible,” said DOE spokeswoman Jen Stutsman. The Energy Department last night blogged that it would “be sharing additional details on the timing of the project” once the procurement process is complete.

Underscoring the complexity of a solar system decision—at least for the U.S. federal government—the administration actually released a 104-page solar procurement guide for agency decision makers last fall at the same time it announced it would bring solar back to the White House roof. In addition to the factors that any homeowner has to weigh when considering solar—cost, shade trees, utility interconnection issues—the guide explores the realms that are either unique or uniquely complex for the federal government: historic building requirements, potential for triggering a required-by-law environmental impact analysis, and government “Buy American” goals and requirements.

The last of those may seem to be a particularly tricky area to negotiate when it comes to solar, since only 6 percent of the world’s PV panels were manufactured in the United States in 2010, according to renewable market experts at GTM Research. And GTM gauges that the cost of making the most common PV panels, those based on silicon wafer technology, is 20 to 25 percent higher in the United States than in China, which owns the largest share of the market at 51 percent.

Still, the United States, where solar technology was developed in the 1950s, continues to be the place where newer technologies are being developed and refined, such as the effort to reduce solar costs through use of thin films of photovoltaic material instead of wafers. And DOE’s spokesperson reiterated what the administration said in announcing the White House project: that the goal “is to demonstrate American technology and know-how.” There are at least 40 solar companies that already have U.S. government preapproval to compete for the White House or any other federal project; they are on the U.S. General Services Administration schedule, the list of vendors with a pre-negotiated contracts.

During the 1970s energy crisis, President Jimmy Carter had solar panels installed on the White House roof. The panels were removed in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan.

The solar industry activists and advocates who campaigned for President Obama to bring solar back to the White House roof remain upbeat about the project, despite the delay. “We shouldn’t belittle the scale and the significance of the project,” says Danny Kennedy, cofounder of the Oakland, California, solar services company, Sungevity, which spearheaded an online campaign that garnered 50,000 signatures in support of a solar White House. “It’s a magnificent heritage building, and we all want to make sure that the project is done properly. As with all things, we wish it could happen sooner, but we are still hearing the right noises.”

And author-activist Bill McKibben, founder of, which also campaigned hard for White House solar, said in an email a couple of weeks ago, “I refuse to give up hope.”

“Home repair is always hard, but they have a big staff, and I know we can arrange large numbers of volunteer electricians and plumbers almost overnight if they’d like them,” he wrote.

While the federal government continues to grapple with the White House solar system decision, one of the most significant developments in the solar industry is a focus on making the solar choice easier for homeowners. Sungevity, which designed a solar system for the presidential residence in the Maldives last year (Related: “Beating the White House to the Solar Punch”), is one of a number of solar service companies that are seeking to make the technology more accessible by using online system design and ordering, and lease-instead-of-buy financing. The sector got a major boost last week when Google announced it was teaming up with Silicon Valley’s SolarCity and creating a $280 million fund to finance such installations—the largest fund ever created for the purpose in the United States. (Related: “Google Creates $280 Million Fund to Finance Solar Energy”) The blog Climate Progress last week ran a good overview of these efforts: “Solar Service Companies Make Solar Affordable and Accessible.”

Eric Skalac, a reporter for Medill News Service in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.