Jamaica's prime minister is now the 'Solar Head of State'

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The Office of the Prime Minister of Jamaica has commissioned a high-efficiency, state-of-the-art solar photovoltaics array, thanks to Solar Head of State, a nonprofit that helps world leaders become green leaders by installing solar panels on government buildings. This cool organization grew up out of the campaign to put solar back on the White House and also has coordinated installations with the president of the Maldives and the governor-general of Saint Lucia.

The project in Jamaica got the country to lift its goal on how much renewables it can embrace. "I believe that we can do better. Jamaica has sunshine all year round and strong winds in certain parts of the island," said Prime Minister Andrew Holness. "I have directed the government to increase our target from 30 percent to 50 percent, and our energy company is totally in agreement. So, I believe that by 2030, Jamaica will be producing more than 50 percent of its electricity from renewables."

This is a big result for a volunteer-led organization that’s been working on getting solar on presidents' and prime ministers' domiciles since 2010. Solar Head of State’s efforts have supported global influencers championing solar, increasing awareness and affecting change through innovative efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This year it ran the "Jamaica Solar Challenge" with youth groups there to develop innovative communication projects about renewables, which resulted in this amazing winner.

With prices down and Paris ratified, the pressure is on to show the world that "it can be done." As a small island state, this has not been a big lift for the social movement there to get their leaders to lead. Indeed, the installation that happened this week in Kingsford, Jamaica’s capital city, is an upbeat partnership with global solar companies, international NGOs and the government to show their country — and the world — what can be done with solar power.

"Solaria is very proud to be helping Jamaica transition to clean energy with this new state-of-the-art PowerXT solar array," says Solaria CEO Suvi Sharma. And Surya Potharaju, senior director of product management at Enphase Energy, says, "The ability to quickly, safely and cost-effectively modify the settings on our advanced microinverters helps move island grids closer to achieving the full integration of solar."

A brief solar history of the White House

It wasn’t always so easy. For those who don’t remember the U.S. history and why the venue of "first homes" or official residences of the heads of state are even a focus of solar enthusiasts, here’s a quick version of how this played over the past 40 years.

First, Jimmy Carter put solar on the White House as a response to the energy crises of the 1970s as an example to the nation. While these were solar hot-water modules (not PV), they became a symbol for the fossil-fuel lobby of the distant but emerging threat of renewables.

And symbols can be scary things. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan famously took the solar equipment off the White House, saying "Solar power was not a technology befitting a superpower." Steven Strong, a pioneering solar advocate, got George H.W. Bush to put some solar on a shed on the White House grounds (although the legend is he did it while the first family was out of town).

It wasn't until Barack Obama was elected that solar found a place back on the main building, after a push from the Globama campaign by SEIA, 350.org and other organizations.

That effort started when the president noted, "That would be a good idea," at a Rose Garden reception for Denis Hayes (founder of the Solar Energy Research Institute, later National Renewable Energy Laboratory), in a conversation with me and Rhone Resch, then head of SEIA. It took some time to get this done: We had to organize a petition with thousands of signatures, and met with the White House and the Energy Department many times before an open bid was created to pull off the project.

The installation did not happen until after the Solyndra "issue" subsided after the 2012 election, but the old house finally got an efficiency audit and upgrade plus solar PV. You can see a video of it here on the Department of Energy website.

As part of the campaign to get the Obama White House to go solar, a company that I co-founded — Sungevity — offered to put solar on any head of state’s house in the world. We were surprised to be taken up on the offer by the president most distant from our headquarters in Oakland, California — the then democratically elected leader of the Maldives, Mohammed Nasheed. Here’s a great photo of that president actually tied in, on the roof, helping us install the panels.

Sungevity’s intrepid staffer, Brian Somers, who made solar happen on the White House and the Muleagee — the Presidential Palace in the Maldives — went on to form the voluntary organization dedicated to the work of getting solar on "first residences": Solar Head of State. The nonprofit has attracted many great people from University of North Carolina and across the pond at the University of Essex and elsewhere.  For the last few years, it has been coordinated by James Ellsmoor. James has given the organization a focus on small island developing.

Not only has Obama moved on but a more fascistic leader has taken over in the Maldives. And so, leadership on solar has shifted to the other side of the world, to the Caribbean. This is particularly appropriate as the Caribbean currently depends on imported fossil fuels for around 90 percent of its energy sources, but many countries in the Caribbean have set ambitious goals to transition to more efficient, sustainable energy sources.

"Due to climate change, small island developing states need to leverage renewable resources such as solar," says Solar Head of State director Ellsmoor. "We are focused on installing highly visible solar arrays on public buildings to draw greater attention to renewables. Jamaica’s commitment to ushering in a new era of renewable energy is laudable."

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