- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Solar power is coming to President Obama’s residence.

The most famous house in the U.S., which boosted its green credentials by planting a garden, now plans to install solar panels atop the White House living quarters. The solar panels, to be installed by spring, 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.

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

Mr. Obama, who has championed renewable energy, has been under increasing pressure by the solar industry and environmental activists to lead by example by installing solar at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., something White House officials said has been under consideration since he took office.

The decision perhaps has more import now after legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions died in the Senate, despite White House support. Mr. Obama has vowed to try again on a smaller scale.

Last month, activists with 350.org carried one of Mr. Carter’s solar panels - which were removed in 1986 - from Unity College in Maine to Washington to urge Mr. Obama to put solar panels on his roof. The organization is part of a global campaign to persuade world leaders to use solar energy in their homes. After a meeting with White House officials, the activists left Washington without a commitment.

Bill McKibben, a co-founder of 350.org, said Tuesday that 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,” Mr. McKibben said.

It was not clear Tuesday how much the White House solar project would cost, or how much fossil-fuel-based electricity it would displace, because the system has not been designed and the White House will not disclose how much energy the first family needs.

Administration officials, basing estimates on available roof space, said the photovoltaic system will include 25 to 75 panels and will convert sunlight into 19,700 kilowatt-hours of electricity a year. That would save a typical household $2,300 on its electricity bill, based on commercial rates in Washington. The solar water-heating system could save an additional $1,000 a year, government estimates indicate.

But the White House is far from a typical house, said Danny Kennedy, founder of California-based solar energy provider Sungevity, which offered to put solar panels on the White House free of charge this year as part of a campaign called SolarontheWhiteHouse.

Mr. Kennedy estimated that outfitting Mr. Obama’s residence with solar panels would cost $100,000 if paid out of pocket. But the money would be earned back with savings on energy costs in the first five years, he said in an interview from the Maldives, where he is installing 48 solar panels on President Mohamed Nasheed’s private residence.

Mr. Kennedy said his calculations were based on a 5,000-square-foot California home, which uses 60,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually.

“They use a lot more electricity than that,” Mr. Kennedy said. “We had to make a few assumptions about what electricity cost was in the White House.”