White House Solar Panels: Good Idea?

Is putting solar panels on the White House is the best idea at this moment? Several things to think about on the minus and plus side. Symbolism is certainly essential when it comes to innovation. Still, this may be the wrong symbolic gesture, going into this particular election. Jimmy Carter put solar panels on, Ronald Reagan took them off.

Second, the economics of solar panels, especially in a non-sun-belt area like DC, still depend on government subsidies and cheap borrowing costs. Here’s a graphic on the levelized cost of electricity by different technologies, without government subsidies. This is based on Department of Energy projections for 2016.

So the government is borrowing this money from overseas, basically, to increase its net energy costs.

That needn’t be a bad thing. Government spending is often necessary to get economies of scale for manufacturing and improving new technologies. But if we want our borrowing to be worthwhile, those benefits of government spending have to stay in the U.S. We have to make sure that our net trade gap in photovoltaic cells and modules decreases, not increases, and that our domestic PV manufacturing continues to grow. One possibility: More subsidies for domestic PV manufacturing. Does that violate WTO rules?

About Michael Mandel 127 Articles

Michael Mandel was BusinessWeek's chief economist from 1989-2009, where he helped direct the magazine's coverage of the domestic and global economies.

Since joining BusinessWeek in 1989, he has received multiple awards for his work, including being honored as one of the 100 top U.S. business journalists of the 20th century for his coverage of the New Economy. In 2006 Mandel was named "Best Economic Journalist" by the World Leadership Forum.

Mandel is the author of several books, including Rational Exuberance, The Coming Internet Depression, and The High Risk Society.

Mandel holds a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard University.

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1 Comment on White House Solar Panels: Good Idea?

  1. I think that the re-installation of solar PV panels back onto the White House is good for both practical and symbolic reasons. We had forward thinking in the form of Jimmy Carter putting up the first ones and sheer arrogance in the form of Ronald Reagan in tearing them down.

    My guess is that those Carter-era PV panels were manufactured in the US, as most probably were in those days. It is probably considerably more difficult to find domestically made replacements today. But is this an albatross that can legitimately hung around the neck of the Obama administration?

    From the perspective of U-S manufacturing competitiveness, it was also a mistake during the Reagan administration not to embrace the metric system used by the rest of the industrialized world. Movie cowboy bravado parading as patriotism, once again, trumped practicality here. But some will argue that we won the Cold War because our nuclear weapons were measured in inches instead of centimeters.

    Its largely an academic argument on whether solar PV panels are as an efficient way of generating energy in the semi-sunny Washington climate as, say, wind turbines or tapping into a geothermal source. The White House is not a LEED certified building and will never be a test laboratory for cutting edge energy technology. Symbolic to a degree, yes . . . but a sort of symbolism of clean energy independence that this country could use more of these days.

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