Gov. Martin O'Malley and his wife, Katie, have put a "green" stamp on the governor's mansion since moving in three years ago. Next week, they will take environmentalism to a new level by installing solar panels on the roof.
The panels, and other upgrades such as more efficient lighting and temperature controls, are part of a broader project to save energy at state-operated buildings. The solar array will provide about half of the hot water used by the mansion's residents, and will be installed inconspicuously to preserve the character of the 140-year-old historic mansion that is one of the most visible landmarks in Annapolis.
"Mrs. O'Malley is hot on the idea," the governor quipped yesterday.
Each new administration has put its imprimatur on the mansion known as Government House, which has served as the residence for Maryland governors since being built in 1870.
Every change made to the Georgian-style home – which sits across the street from the State House and has received guests ranging from Mark Twain to Queen Elizabeth to Sugar Ray Leonard – draws attention.
Gov. Harry Hughes and his wife, Patricia, were known for period decorating at the governor's mansion. Gov. Parris N. Glendening and his second wife, Frances, allowed local artists to temporarily display paintings in the house and sculpture on the lawn. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and his wife, Kendel, the first gubernatorial couple to have young children at home in more than 50 years, made the place kid-friendly – adding a tub where they could bathe their young sons.
The O'Malleys have ramped up recycling at the house, and this summer planted a vegetable garden with the help of local farmers. They also installed an irrigation system that uses rain water caught in several barrels on the manicured property. The solar panels will provide electricity to the current electric water heater.
O'Malley, who has championed environmental causes since he was elected, is not the first politician to take a stand at home.
In the 1970s, Jimmy Carter installed solar panels on the White House. Former Vice President Al Gore has turned his Tennessee home into an environmentalist showplace, and George W. Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, was built to consume minimal energy.
Governor's mansions in New York, Florida, Colorado, Michigan and Ohio have added solar thermal panels to heat water, solar electric panels to provide power, or both.
The solar panels at Government House are part of an energy efficiency effort involving several contractors that will be installing upgrades at 37 buildings over the next year.
The arrangement allows the state to foot the $17.8 million cost by borrowing from the state Treasury and repaying the loan through savings guaranteed under the contract. The project is projected to reduce utility costs by nearly 20 percent, and the loan is expected to be repaid within 14 years.
The two panels at the mansion are to be installed on a flat part of the roof that won't be visible from the street. Officials have cleared the plans with the Maryland Historical Trust, which lists the mansion as an historic site, said Hatim Jabaji, director of energy performance and conservation at the Department of General Services.
Changes to the home have been known to rankle area residents and strict historic preservationists. One of the most recent was the Ehrlichs' Halloween lawn decorations that included a giant blow-up pumpkin, an air-filled Dracula and tombstones. A large Victorican-style fountain commissioned by Gov. William Donald Schaefer's companion, Hilda Mae Snoops, drew criticism for excess when unveiled 20 years ago.
Will the solar panels similarly offend?
"I can imagine history buffs getting upset about just about anything," said Elaine Rice Bachmann, director of artistic property at the state archives. "There's always a hue and a cry when there are changes made to Government House, like when the Ehrlichs put out inflatables and people thought that was inappropriate. But when you've got little kids, who's to judge?"
Mark Bartlett, owner of AtisSun Inc., which installs solar panels, said he was thrilled at the idea of the panels being installed on Government House – and hopes that it encourages even more residents to do the same. "It's fabulous, a great message," he said.
More residents have warmed to the idea, especially as state and federal incentives can offset the cost of a typical residential solar thermal system by 60 percent. The solar program in Maryland has become so popular that the state ran out of money last year and had to put hundreds of people on a wait list.
"Forget cash for clunkers, this is cash for water," Bartlett said. "It's really a win-win. Homeowners save money, and the average house reduces its C02 emission by 2,000 pounds a year."