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Time to green this old (White) House -- again

What's already been done to make the White House environmentally friendly -- and what else could be done.

By Nancy BenacAssociated Press writer / March 30, 2009

Going green: Fifth-graders help first lady Michelle Obama break ground for a kitchen garden at the White House. It's part of the Obama's plans to make the residence more environmentally friendly.

Jason Reed/Reuters

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Washington

President Barack Obama will find out two things as he studies how to make the White House more environmentally friendly:

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No. 1: It's already been done.

No. 2: It needs to be done again.

It was Earth Day 1993 when President Bill Clinton launched his ambitious "greening the White House" project. That effort saved more than $1.4 million in its first six years, largely from improvements in lighting, heating, air conditioning, insulation, water sprinklers, and other measures.

During George W. Bush's two terms, workers installed three solar systems, including a thermal setup on the pool cabana that heats water for the pool and showers, and photovoltaic panels atop a maintenance shed that supplement the mansion's electrical supply.

Bush also made a big push to recycle office paper, although the overall go-green effort lost momentum during his tenure, according to many outside observers.

Mr. Obama promised before he took office that he wanted to sit down with White House staff to evaluate what can be done to conserve energy in a 132-room behemoth of a mansion/office that leaves an EEE-sized carbon footprint.

"Part of what I want to do is to show the American people that it's not that hard," Obama said in a television interview during the transition. He said he's one of those people who tiptoes around and turns off lights at night. "I'm not going to be obsessive about it. But I do that in my current house. So there's no reason why I wouldn't do it in my next one."

The family already is taking action to set an eco-example for the nation. First lady Michelle Obama recently broke ground for an organic herb and vegetable garden on the South Lawn.

The Obamas have installed an environmentally friendly wooden swing set for their children on the White House grounds. Cushioning underfoot is made from recycled rubber tires.

Obama isn't ready to give details of his broader go-green plans for the White House, but administration officials report that small steps are under way: The housekeeping staff is making the switch to greener cleaning supplies, and complex managers have asked engineers and groundskeepers to use greener products whenever possible. Efforts are afoot to improve and promote recycling.

As for what more can be done, outside experts on green buildings report that the administration is seeking out information about what's feasible. Given the priority Obama placed on renewable energy in his economic stimulus package and budget, environmentalists are chattering about what further steps he will take at the White House.

"They're very focused on leading by example," says Rick Fedrizzi, chief executive of the nonprofit US. Green Building Council, which has offered advice to the White House. "It's great to see that they're focused on solid solutions and not just throwing sound bites over the fence every day."

Sometimes, good intentions have gotten ahead of the technology in eco-efforts at the White House.

In the late 1970s, President Jimmy Carter installed a $30,000 solar water-heating system designed to save $1,000 a year in heating costs. It didn't really work.