SAN FRANCISCO - MAY 25: A group demanding that solar panels be put on the White House protest outside of the Fairmont Hotel before U.S. President Barack Obama arrives for a fundraiser May 25, 2010 in San Francisco, California. Hundreds of protestors from different political groups staged the demonstration at a campaign fundraiser for U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA). (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)“No.”

That was the disappointing response from the Obama White House a few weeks ago to the plea from climate change activists who transported solar panels dating back to the Carter Administration to the White House to get them reinstalled. President Jimmy Carter placed solar panels on the White House roof during the energy crisis of the 1970s–only to see them removed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986. Writer and climate activist Bill McKibben and his group managed to find them, dust them off, and offer them up as one small gesture President Obama could take, sending a signal, once again, that the White House was serious about supporting clean, renewable energy. The rejection was stunning.

People puzzled over why. Maybe the White House figured placing panels from Carter on the White House roof would allow for too close an association with a one-term president. Maybe he just didn’t get it.

Well, just as mysteriously, on October 5 came the announcement that the “no” had been transformed into a “yes”–with some caveats. The White House will install a new set of solar panels and bring solar heated water some time in 2011.

Perhaps this change of heart had something to do with disgruntled climate change activists responding to the Obama Administration’s first “no” with calls to indeed make him a one-term president. Maybe it had something to do with the upcoming mobilization of activists on October 10, 2010–10-10-10–in a global work party to take action on climate change with 6,174 events and actions planned in 184 countries. Or maybe it had a little to do with the fact that solar
is now out-competing nuclear power, with costs coming down for solar while costs continue to rise for nuclear, and the U.S. losing out to China in the production of solar cells.

Or maybe Obama finally listened to the U.S. Department of Energy which has claimed solar could indeed power the U.S. economy, dispelling the myth that base load power can only come from large coal, gas, hydro and nuclear power plants. The DOE claims that:

“…photovoltaic (PV) technology can meet electricity demand on any scale. The solar energy resource in a 100-mile-square area of Nevada could supply the United States with all its electricity (about 800 gigawatts) using modestly efficient (10%) commercial PV modules.. The land requirement to produce 800 gigawatts would average out to be about 17 x 17 miles per state. Alternatively, PV systems built in the “brownfields”—the estimated 5 million acres of abandoned industrial sites in our nation’s cities—could supply 90% of America’s current electricity…”

But whatever caused the change of heart, President Obama has restored a small sense of hope among climate activists that he really will make climate change a focus for him in coming months. It’s a small gesture, but in dark times such as these, small gestures can lead to more meaningful and transformational ones. Let’s hope this change of heart is one we can believe in.

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