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Environmentalists Want Carter-Era Solar Panels Back on White House

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Solar panels that used to power the White House are shown on top of a building at Unity College in Maine. (Courtesy of 350.org)

Environmental activists want President Obama to bring more sunlight into government -- literally. 

Toting one of the original solar panels that President Carter installed on his White House more than 30 years ago, environmental author Bill McKibben traveled to Washington, D.C., Thursday as part of a mini-road show aimed at convincing the Obama White House to go solar. 

McKibben wants the White House to re-install solar panels after a decades-long hiatus. He said Obama would set an example for the country and, in doing so, potentially inspire more Americans to use the technology. 

"The White House is such a perfect place to do it, because it has real leverage," he said. "This is the most important piece of real estate in the country, probably." 

A little backstory: Carter first installed solar panels on the White House in 1979. They apparently had limited effect -- the former White House usher said in an interview last year that the Carter solar plan left employees washing their hands with cool water. President Reagan ultimately took the panels down in 1986. Since then, many of these solar power relics have been on display atop the cafeteria at Unity College in Maine. 

McKibben, who is trying to petition world leaders to install solar panels for an environmental demonstration Oct. 10, got his hands on one of the original Carter panels and toured it through Boston and New York before heading to the nation's capital. He's collected hundreds of signatures along the way on the 6-foot-by-3-foot slab, which weighs about 120 pounds. 

So far, the biggest taker McKibben's had is Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed, who apparently plans to lay down some solar panels next month. The White House hasn't said whether it will take up McKibben's request and did not return a request for comment. 

But McKibben, founder of 350.org, said he hopes staffers will grant him a meeting so he can make his case. He said he'd be happy if Obama just installed the solar panel he's touring but, given improvements in solar technology since the '70s, "we'd like them to put a new set on" as well. 

"It can't be that complicated -- you don't need 60 votes to go fix your roof," he said. 

Obama pledged to make the White House more energy efficient when he took office, following in the footsteps of Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, each of whom oversaw efforts to green their workspace. 

One of the most visible changes was first lady Michelle Obama's vegetable garden, a project McKibben said helped boost seed sales across the country. 

He acknowledged that White House solar panels probably wouldn't solve the nation's energy problems, but said it would send an important signal. 

"Unless Barack is taking awfully long showers, it's a pretty minor part of the entire climate problem but a big part of the solution," he said.