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GREEN BUSH?

Were a blackout ever to roll through Washington, DC, and were, at that moment, President Bush luxuriating in the White House spa, he would be mighty glad that the spa, as well as the pool and some of the domestic hot water, is heated by a solar thermal system.

The same would likely hold true if Crawford, Texas—the location of the Western White House (the president’s private ranch)—were ever to experience a blackout when the president was there. The ranch’s passive solar design, in addition to the geothermal heating and cooling system, allow it to reap much of its indoor and poolside climatic equilibrium from renewable energy sources independent of the electricity grid.

Sadly, these renewable and efficient energy technologies do not reflect Bush’s own environmental ideology. The president could appeal to environmentalists by proclaiming the Crawford ranch a model for energy efficiency and an example of “green” building. But this laudable personal achievement pales when compared with Bush’s tarnished environmental record and hopeless pandering to the fossil fuel giants. The president appears uninterested in appeasing environmentalists; as a constituency, he views them as utterly useless.

The Washington White House features 167 photovoltaic solar panels which are situated on one of the maintenance buildings. In late 2002, the National Park Service installed these panels and the White House solar thermal system, as part of its management of the White House grounds. Although it was the Park Service—not the president—who spearheaded the installation of these technologies, the Office of the Federal Environmental Executive quickly leapt at the chance to trumpet the president’s “commitment” to alternative energy technologies.

Bush is not the first president to inhabit a White House powered by solar panels. President Carter also installed them, although as soon as he took office, President Reagan wasted no time before having them promptly ripped down.

How the Western White House came to be so “green” may have more to do with the pragmatism of Laura Bush and her architect than any devotion to energy conservation. The First Lady worked with David Heymann—an architect who specializes in cultural and environmental relationships between buildings and landscapes—to design a ranch home that would blend into the landscape. The Crawford home uses efficient passive solar and geothermal energy and captures rainwater in a 25,000-gallon cistern for use in irrigation.

In a 2001 USA Today story about the ranch, Laura Bush downplayed the environmental benefits of the house’s design and attributes. “The features are environment-friendly, but the reason for them was practical—to save money and to save water, which is scarce in this dry, hot part of Texas,” she said.

Indeed, there is money to be saved by installing a geothermal heating and cooling system and collecting rainwater as a source of water for irrigation. The geothermal system employed at the Western White House uses about 30 to 40 percent of the electricity expended by traditional heating and air-conditioning systems. According to Heymann, “It is likely that the system there runs more efficiently because the overall design of the house utililizes passive solar strategies and natural ventilation in its layout, has low-energy glass (the windows transmit less heat), and is well insulated.”

President Bush has achieved relative energy security and economic benefits from his personal use of these environmentally-friendly technologies in Texas and at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Yet, the policies of his administration show no appreciation of these technologies and his administration seems unwilling to make them readily available for the average consumer.

Bush harped on energy supply as the culprit for the Northeast blackout, and used the same excuse for California's rolling blackouts in 2001. The president sees only one path to a stable energy future: developing more coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear energy. To compensate for the imminent depletion of these resources, he throws money at hydrogen, a technologically distant prospect. This fossil-fuel and hydrogen combination doesn't add up, especially since Bush has personally reaped the benefits of much more accessible geothermal and solar energy.

The Senate version of the energy bill, which is currently in conference committee, contains the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard, a mandate requiring utilities to acquire a certain percentage of renewable energy sources as a means of diversifying their portfolios. The House version does not feature this provision. The outcome of the conference committee will shape the final bill that is sent to both floors for a vote and then to President Bush. Given his administration’s antipathy toward renewable sources and efficient technologies, however, that provision may well be thrown to the trash bin—like so many other canceled research efforts and incentives since he has taken office.

“We cannot expect energy conservation and greenhouse gas reduction to occur naturally as a consequence of private virtue,” notes Devra Davis, an epidemiologist and author of When Smoke Ran Like Water: Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution. Nor can we interpret the president’s own household energy patterns as exemplary and universally applicable. Instead, government must create the policy incentives for the average energy consumer and the utility companies which may not have the resources to utilize renewable and efficient technologies.

The fact remains that the president is personally saving money because of the energy-smart technologies in use at his two homes. The schizophrenia revealed by his personal pragmatism and his public impracticality can be chalked up to politics. Washington or Crawford could be next if and when our electricity supply starts to falter again. With a blackout, the president might be reminded of the most powerful and reliable source of energy, not fossil fuel. And he might want to reconsider sharing the wealth.

Written by: Eliza Barclay


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