As you know by now, I sometimes differ with my friend Bill McKibben on pathways to energy progress. But I think he's made a valid point in criticizing President Obama for not living up to the pledge his administration made last fall to install solar hot water and photovoltaic systems on the White House by the start of summer (that would be today).
The promise wasn't some passing reference hidden in a broader initiative. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu made the announcement with quite a bit of fanfare and his blog post — The White House Goes Solar — had no conditionality.
McKibben and his group, 350.org, had helped build a "Put Solar On It" campaign last year that preceded the fall announcement. As McKibben put it today in an interview with the Associated Press:
Nine months is a pretty long time. You can have a baby in that time…. On the list of things that get done, this isn't all that hard. It doesn't require SEAL Team 6. It just requires a good-faith effort.
He has a point. In an earlier comment on the slowness of the process, McKibben noted that when the administration sets a priority it seems capable of cutting through red tape and moving expeditiously.
"This is a can-do administration," he told me in an e-mail. "Just this year they managed to open federal land in the Powder River Basin to coal-mining with the stroke of a pen, and that's the equivalent of opening 300 new coal-fired power plants."
The White House and Department of Energy have been pushing a nationalRooftop Solar Challenge that's mainly aimed at eliminating a variety of bureaucratic hurdles at the local and regional level that are impeding broader deployment of photovoltaic panels.
In a blog post yesterday, Ramamoorthy Ramesh of the energy department blamed bureaucratic procedures for the delay:
The Energy Department remains on the path to complete the White House solar demonstration project, in keeping with our commitment, and we look forward to sharing more information — including additional details on the timing of this project — after the competitive procurement process is completed.
A prime directive in politics is not to make pledges you can't meet.
When President George W. Bush abandoned his campaign pledge to restrict carbon dioxide emissions from power plants four months after his election, that didn't do much for his credibility.
This is a far smaller failure, but remains unfortunate, nonetheless.