Back in 1979, President Jimmy Carter installed solar panels on the roof of the West Wing as part of a new solar strategy. "In the year 2000," Carter said, "the solar water heater behind me, which is being dedicated today, will still be here, supplying cheap, efficient energy. A generation from now, this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it can be just a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people."
Sadly, after President Ronald Reagan came into office, he had the panels removed, and some of them did end up in museums. Environmental activist Bill McKibben, founder of the group 350.org, told me, "You know where one of these other panels is? It's in the private museum of the Chinese entrepreneur who's built the world's largest solar thermal company on earth, Himin Solar. They've installed 60 million arrays like this across China."
In 1990, the White House panels were retrieved from government storage and put back into use by Unity College in Maine. To make the case for solar, McKibben joined with a group of Unity College students and drove one of the panels from their campus to the White House, asking that it be put back on the roof. The White House declined the offer.
President Barack Obama campaigned on the pledge that he would create millions of new green jobs. He hired Van Jones as his White House green jobs czar—only to fire him shortly after Jones became the target of what he called a "vicious smear campaign," which was promulgated by Fox News Channel. Now Obama faces a massive unemployment problem, jeopardizing not only the livelihoods of tens of millions, but the political prospects for the Democrats.
Germany, one of the most advanced economies in the world, did just that.
Now, as reported in the Financial Times, German photovoltaic cell installations last year amount to more than one-half of those in the world.
I'm here covering the 30th anniversary of the Right Livelihood Awards, an amazing gathering of scores of activists and thinkers from around the world. Among them is Hermann Scheer, a member of the German Parliament.
When he received his Right Livelihood Award, he said: "Solar energy is the energy of the people. To use this energy does not require big investments of only a few big corporations. It requires billions of investments by billions of people. They have the opportunity to switch from being a part of the problem to becoming a part of the global solution."
And Germany is making this happen. Small-scale residential and commercial solar power installations are not only providing jobs, increased efficiency and cost savings—they actually are allowing the owners of the systems to sell excess power back to the power grid, running their meters in reverse, when conditions allow.
Here, too, are representatives of the Bangladeshi organization Grameen Shakti, which makes loans and offers technical assistance to allow poor, rural people to install solar power in their homes, often granting access to electricity for the first time in their family's history. They have helped install more than 110,000 systems, often with a woman hired to maintain the system—creating jobs, empowering women and raising the standard of living.
Also in Bonn is the headquarters of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the sponsor of the failed Copenhagen climate talks last year. U.N. member countries and other stakeholders will meet again in December in Cancun, Mexico, with expectations for substantial progress declining almost daily.
The Obamas' organic garden shows that when the most powerful, public couple takes a stand, people pay attention. Instead of just saying no, President Obama could make an important statement in restoring the White House solar panels to the roof: After the BP Gulf oil disaster, after the reckless invasion and profoundly costly occupation of Iraq (which many believe was based on our need for oil), after the massive, ongoing loss of jobs, we are changing. We will power a vital movement away from fossil fuels, to sustainable energy, to green jobs.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.
Amy Goodman is the host of "Democracy Now!," a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 800 stations in North America. She is the author of "Breaking the Sound Barrier," recently released in paperback and now a New York Times best-seller.
Despite its heavy cloud cover most of the year, Germany produces half of the world's solar power, twice as much as its nearest rival, Japan, and four times third-placed United States.
It produced 3.78 gigawatts in 2007 and in 2008 will add 1.5 gigawatts. Renewables account for 14 percent of its electricity.
This success was set in motion a decade ago, when a new coalition of Germany's Social Democrats and Greens set up a framework to promote solar, wind and other renewables by requiring utilities to buy clean energy at above-market rates.
It worked, as the scores of companies in "Solar Valley," in the eastern state of Saxony, amply show. The law has since been copied in more than 40 countries.
Germany's renewables sector has been recording growth of 30 percent per year since 1998 and now employs some 250,000 people -- turning entrepreneurs like Asbeck and Rau into millionaires.
It is expected to hit 450,000 jobs in the decade ahead and before long bypass the car industry's 600,000 workers -- as rising energy prices and falling production costs make sustainables even more attractive.
German equipment and know-how is now exported around the world and Germany is the world's third-biggest producer of solar panels after China and Japan.
Although controversial at first, Germany's Renewable Energy Act (EEG) made it possible for homeowners to install solar panels on their roofs and recoup the investment costs within about a decade, thanks to generous feed-in tariffs.
A system producing enough power for a four-person household can cost 30,000 euros in Germany.
There are now about 500,000 roofs in Germany with solar panels and 60,000 work in solar power, twice the 2004 number.
The German wind industry in 2003 installed 1700 propellers rated at 2,645 MW.
As of the end of June 2004, the total wind energy capacity installed in Germany amounted to almost 15,327 MW. This makes Germany the world leader in the use of wind power.
Almost half of the world's installed wind turbines are produced by Danish manufacturers.
Germany produces 14.2% of its electricity TODAY from renewable sources. Wind power in Germany produces about seven percent of the country's total power.
German manufacturers supply about 34 percent of the global market for photovoltaic systems
The German renewable energy industry is one of the most important growth industries in Germany. It covers 15.1 percent of German electricity consumption, 7.3 percent of heat consumption and 5.9 percent of fuel consumption.
Renewable energy's contribution to total energy consumption in Germany was around 9.6 percent in 2008.
In 2008, renewable energies cut approx. 115 million tons of carbon emissions.