41 years ago this week: solar panels on White House

On June 20, 1977, then President of the United States Jimmy Carter installed 32 solar panels on the White House roof to help provide hot water for the building. At the dedication ceremony he said: “In the year 2000 this solar water heater behind me, which is being dedicated today, will still be here supplying cheap, efficient energy…. A generation from now, this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken or it can be just a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people.”

As part of encouraging that adventure he set a goal for installing solar energy in two and one-half million US houses by 1985 and established the Solar Energy Research Institute, which morphed into today’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

It is lost in the mists of time whether the national goal was ever reached but in any case incoming President Ronald Reagan was, to put it mildly, not a fan of renewable energy sources. He gutted the budgets for renewables at the Department of Energy (deja vu, anyone?) and Scientific American reported reported thatin 1986 the Reagan administration quietly dismantled the White House solar panel installation while resurfacing the roof.

The solar panels find a new home

“Hey! That system is working. Why don’t you keep it?” recalls mechanical engineer Fred Morse, now of Abengoa Solar, who helped install the original solar panels as director of the solar energy program during the Carter years and then watched as they were dismantled during his tenure in the same job under Reagan.

The Scientific American piece is a great read, and tells the whole story, but the short version is that the panels went into storage and then in 1992 to Unity College in Maine.

Back at the White House, two more presidents came and went and in 2002 George W. Bush had solar panels installed to provide hot water again, not for the whole White House, as the Carter panels had done, but just for the swimming pool.

Then in 2010 President Barrack Obama announced plans to install new solar panels, which were not actually installed until 2015.

As for the current resident of the building, there is no record that he has ordered the panels removed, but the current administration has been clear about where its priorities lie with its announcement on February 16, 2017 that it would be “Putting Coal Country Back To Work”.

One week later President Carter again oversaw the installation of solar panels – 3,852 of them – to supply electricity for his peanut farm and local town of Plains, Georgia.

About one year after that the United States announced tariffs on solar panels imported from China.

And where are they now?

President Carter was sadly prescient. The solar panels ended up in museums.

One sits in the Carter Library, which also has a 116kw solar photovoltaic system on its roof.

One sits in the American Museum of Natural History and was part of an exhibition “Solar Online” which ran from November 29, 2016 – three weeks after the U.S. Presidential election – until March 4, 2018 – three and a half weeks weeks after the announcement of the solar panel tariffs.

And one joined the collection of the Solar Science and Technology Museum.

In Denzhou, China.

As for the coal jobs, Greentechmedia reports that more coal capacity closed in 2018 than in the first three years of the Obama administration

 


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