What the White House Solar Panels Do

by Dave Schuler on May 18, 2014

There’s an estimate here of what proportion of the White House’s electricity consumption its newly-installed solar panels will produce. It’s not much.

However, as the article points out practical results aren’t the objective of the move:

‘‘Solar panels at the White House are a really important message that solar is here, we are doing it, we can do a lot more,’’ Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said in a released to promote the panels.

I doubt that we’re supposed to look too closely at the move:

“If the average American knew how much this cost the taxpayer, they’d realize this is not cost-effective at all,” according to the blog Climate Change Dispatch (CCD), which first pointed out that the solar arrays produced little power.

“Which is specifically why the White House refuses to release the numbers,” CCD adds. “Obama seeks to use his personal example to spur American families and businesses to do more to reduce reliance on foreign energy and cut emissions blamed for global warming.”

I think that’s the biggest problem with symbolic moves like this. They’re not particularly good symbols. If we were to emulate the president’s action we’d install solar panels to offset 2% of our electrical usage, page a lot for them, and never see much in the way of return on our investment.

My dad used to say that the single most beneficial constitutional amendment would be a prohibition against using air conditioning in Washington, DC. I’d bet that if the White House were to turn off its air conditioners, it would result in a lot more than 2% savings and would require no investment in solar panels. Economic and green, too.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

michael reynolds May 18, 2014 at 1:58 pm

There’s nothing wrong with symbolic moves so long as they aren’t substitutes for action. And I think we’d be damned fools not to pursue solar technology. The capacity and cost of current solar is no more certain to be the norm going forward than the Model T, which burned 13-21 mpg to produce 20 hp, set the limit for the internal combustion engine. Cars today can double the Model T’s mpg while producing ten times the power. We have to go through our Model T phase to reach our Prius phase.

Dave Schuler May 18, 2014 at 2:31 pm

What do you mean by “pursue solar technology”? Do you mean

- install Chinese-made products being dumped on the American market?

- install American-made (and more expensive) products made from Chinese components?

- install American-made products made from American components?

The second is what the White House has done. The third doesn’t exist. The first is what most people who install solar panels will inevitably do.

My view is that we should

a) impose a Pigouvian tax on carbon
b) stop subsidizing wind and solar

and then let things sort themselves out. I also think we should impose taxes on Chinese products made without the sorts of labor and environmental standards we impose on American manufacturers but that’s a different subject. Remember, the American solar industry has been kneecapped by a combination of

- Chinese manufacturing and export subsidies and
- U. S., state, and local regulations

Guarneri May 19, 2014 at 7:55 pm

Since we have no hope of stopping the BRICKs I think we need to get practical. Tax the primary producers of global warming – the Koch Brothers (hat tip: Harry Reid) and use the funding to invigorate US manufacturing in building a massive series of heavy duty sump pumps along coast lines, all piped to the western arid states worried about water. There. Think of the demand for welders.

I can only foresee one problem, Warren Buffet will get an early tip and regulatory approval to create a monopoly in sump pump manufacturing, all while giving speeches about how he’d love to pay more taxes.

Mikey May 21, 2014 at 2:28 am

No subsidies for wind and solar is OK if there were no subsidies for oil, nuclear, etc.

When do I get a depletion allowance for my house, my car, etc?

Mikey May 21, 2014 at 2:41 am

BTW, I’m old enough to remember Carter installing solar panels and Reagan removing them with a snarky: we’re Amerika and we don’t need no stinking solar panels; we’ve got lots of coal/oil/gas. Or something to that effect.

So, by my count, we’ve had three symbolic moves on solar WH… I’m awaiting a fourth with JEB or whoever is the next Pres.

P.S. They were solar thermal panels, typical 3~5 yr payback; after that there’s lots of “free” hot water. They never came close to payback, thank you.

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