Energy Efficiency at the White House

How environmental change can begin at the president’s home

The White House
A vegetable garden and less bottled water can help turn the White House "green." iStockphoto

The White House will never be named the most energy-efficient home in the country. The building is more than 200 years old, and it's big—132 rooms. Due to security concerns, the Secret Service would object to some of the easier energy-saving steps, such as turning off the floodlights that illuminate the building at night. And being leader of the nation should come with a few benefits, like being able to turn up the heat in your (Oval) office in the middle of winter.

Over the years, though, past administrations have made some efforts to improve the environmental performance of the White House. President Jimmy Carter, for instance, oversaw the 1979 installation of solar water heaters on the roof (they were dismantled seven years later by President Ronald Reagan). And during President George W. Bush's tenure, the Executive Mansion got a new solar water-heating system as well as solar photovoltaic panels, low-flush toilets, energy-efficient lighting and better insulation.

But there is always room for improvement. A 1993 report from the Rocky Mountain Institute noted that the White House had "in the past, served as a showcase for events in our country's life," and suggested that it could "once again serve as an important symbol, this time as the showcase of environmental responsibility." That Greening the White House initiative never took off, but it is not too late to "create an environmentally sustainable, model White House, and a world-class environmental showcase." Here are some ideas:

Ban bottled water. Shipping water from remote locations like Fiji adds thousands of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each year. In addition, only 13 percent of those plastic bottles get recycled, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. In place of bottled water, the White House could provide employees with reusable bottles and filtered tap water.

Plant a vegetable garden. Fresh herbs. Tomatoes straight off the vine. Food that requires no more transportation (or carbon dioxide emissions) than a short walk.

Compost. Diverting organic waste from the landfill into the compost heap not only means less garbage, but it also provides healthy fertilizer for the garden. Using compost in the garden can reduce the need for chemical fertilizers and increase crop yields.

Plant more trees. They suck up carbon dioxide and sequester air pollutants like nitrogen dioxide and ozone. They save energy by providing shade in the summer and a wind break in the winter. And they are even pretty decoration. Don't plant too many, though; the tourists really like the view of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Install a gray water irrigation system. Gray water is waste water from the household sinks, tubs, showers and laundry. No one would want to drink it, but this water can be used on lawns, ornamental plants and trees, thus reducing the use of fresh water.

Use antiques when redecorating. The government reportedly has warehouses—in undisclosed locations, of course—full of antiques available for use in the White House. Why buy new when you can pick through such amazing collections?

Buy eco-friendly products when the antiques aren't sufficient. There is no such thing as antique paint. And antique appliances will just suck energy. But nontoxic paint and new Energy Star appliances are just some of the eco-friendly options when new items are needed.

Replace light bulbs with LEDs. Light-emitting diodes last 25 times as long as incandescent bulbs. They also use less energy than compact fluorescent light bulbs and lack the toxic mercury found in CFLs.

Install ceiling fans. Washington temperatures can vary by more than one hundred degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year. Ceiling fans can help regulate indoor temperature, making it more comfortable with less energy in summer, winter or in between.

Generate energy with solar panels, wind turbines or geothermal systems—or all three. Which technology would work the best in the Washington climate? Which one would generate the most energy for the least amount of money? It's an energy showdown on the White House lawn.

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