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White House: Solar Power Considered

Credits: ©2010 Solar On the White House

In 1979, the national presidential home of United States of America – the White House in Washington, D.C. – was outfitted with solar thermal panels. The 32 solar panels were installed on the roof just above the Oval Office during Jimmy Carter’s administration to set an example for alternative energy sources, and were used for exclusively for heating water in the White House staff kitchen. The solar panels were removed in 1986 when the White House roof was being repaired during Ronald Reagan’s administration - which also allowed Carter-era solar energy tax credits and research subsidies to expire. In 2003, during the George W. Bush administration, solar panels were again installed on the White House grounds. Two solar thermal systems were mounted, including one on the pool cabana for water heating, and a 9 kW photovoltaic system consisting of 167 panels was installed on a maintenance shed. The National Park Service, the agency responsible for the White House, had authorized the use of solar on the White House grounds, similar to other solar installations made by the Park Service throughout the country. Now, in 2010, there is a movement afoot to place a large photovoltaics array on the White House.


White House Solar

Solar thermal systems provide hot water to the White House pool and spa with a system designed by Solar Design Associates of Harvard, Massachusetts. ©2010 Solar Design Associates


Solar on the White House? How About 10/10/10?
by the Energy Examiner,  August 2010

Sometimes our symbolic actions that we take can translate into tangible shifts in collective behavior. These symbolic actions can be simple things, but in order for them to be effective, they must be relevant to the issues that are circulating, pulsing within the general public. Reinstalling the solar panels back on the roof of the White House has the potential to catalyze the pent up demand for clean energy that is growing in America and in the world. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter's administration installed solar panels on the roof of the White House. This was a highly symbolic act that conveyed to the American people that we were beginning the transition from foreign oil to domestic clean energy. During the Carter Administration, that symbolic act translated pretty quickly into increased R&D and tax subsidies for clean energy technologies.

Carter was the first president to take that idea seriously. President Carter saw solar as a really valid energy resource, and he understood it. I mean, it is a domestic resource and it is huge. It was the symbolism of the president wanting to bring solar energy immediately into his administration.

That symbolism became more concrete in the form of a vastly increased budget for energy technology research and development, levels still unmatched by succeeding administrations, and tax credits for installing wind turbines or solar power that caused a first boom in renewable energy installation. In a sense, alternative energy was finally getting the same government support used to develop and maintain other energy technologies, such as oil drilling or nuclear power.

But, in 1986, President Ronald Reagan gutted the budgets of R&D for renewable energy, eliminated tax subsidies for wind and solar, and tore down the solar panels off the roof of the White House. "Mr. Carter, tear down those solar panels."

President Obama, today, has the opportunity to create the same highly symbolic event that President Carter did and to use it as a tangible display of his commitment to bring renewable energy into the mainstream in America. In countless speeches, the president has touted clean energy as the path toward a prosperous future. He has told us that fossil fuels are killing the planet and creating conditions whereby petro-dictators have risen to power. He tells us our national security is at stake.

These words and warnings would be far more meaningful if they were followed up with action; a ceremony where solar panels, the best technology we have with the highest efficiency, are reinstalled back on the roof of the White House.

Solar panels on the White House are not going to solve the energy crisis, nor by themselves reduce pollution in a significant way, but the symbolic act of installing them on top of the power center of the world would speak volumes to people across the globe. In one simple act, the President could contribute toward bringing clean energy into the mainstream where Congress has failed to give people or business any sense of confidence.

10.10.10 has been adopted by TckTckTck and 350.org as a day whereby every country on earth has been invited to take part in local actions that improve their communities and lower carbon emissions in the atmosphere.

They have recommended to people activities to participate in, a range so to speak of carbon reducing activities that day, such as tree planting events, installing solar panels, participating in community gardens, riding bikes, start a wind project, increase energy efficiency, start a transition town, work with faith groups, clean up trash, or join the 10:10 campaign.

In addition, 10.10.10 is also being celebrated by One Day on Earth as a sort of video time-capsule day. The organization has invited everyone on Earth to film some aspect of their day's activities on 10.10.10 and then submit them online. The group plans to develop a 120 minute documentary about the events that take place on that day. The combination of TckTckTck and 350.org's International Work Party Day and One Day on Earth's filming project should make for an interesting documentary of humanity's shift to more environmentally responsible lives.

Maybe a perfect day to put the solar panels back up on the roof of the White House.

About the White House
The White House is extensive but, since much of it is below ground or otherwise concealed by landscaping, many people don’t realize it. The White House includes: 132 rooms and 35 bathrooms, six stories and 55,000 square feet of floor space, 412 doors, 147 windows, twenty-eight fireplaces, eight staircases, three elevators, five full-time chefs, a tennis court, a bowling alley, a movie theater, a jogging track, a swimming pool (with solar heated water), and a putting green. It receives about 5,000 visitors a day. The original White House design, by James Hoban, was the result of a competition held in 1792. Over the centuries, rooms have been added, with extra facilities and entire new wings, turning the White House into the labyrinthine complex it is now.

Where Did the Carter White House's Solar Panels Go?

By David Biello, Scientific American One of the 32 solar-thermal panels that captured energy on the roof of the White House more than 30 years ago landed at a science museum in China in August 2010.

The White House itself once harvested the power of the sun. On June 20, 1979, the Carter administration installed 32 panels designed to harvest the sun's rays and use them to heat water.

Here is what Carter predicted at the dedication ceremony: "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."

For some of the solar panels it is the former that has come to pass: one resides at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, one at the Carter Library and, as of this week, one will join the collection of the Solar Science and Technology Museum in Dezhou, China. Huang Ming, chairman of Himin Solar Energy Group Co., the largest manufacturer of such solar hot water heaters in the world, accepted the donation for permanent display there on August 5. After all, companies like his in China now produce some 80 percent of the solar water heaters used in the world today.

But they are based on the same technology developed here in the U.S. and once manufactured in Warrentown, Va., by InterTechnology/Solar Corp., the company behind the Carter panels.* Roughly three meters long, one meter wide and just 10 centimeters deep, the blue-black panels absorb sunlight to heat water piped through their innards. The Carter administration set a goal of deriving 20 percent of U.S. energy needs from such renewable sources by the turn of the century. Today, the U.S. gets a mere 7 percent of its energy from renewables, the bulk of that from the massive hydroelectric dams constructed in the middle of the 20th century. Solar thermal and photovoltaic technology combined provide less than 0.1 percent.

By 1986, the Reagan administration had gutted the research and development budgets for renewable energy at the then-fledgling U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) and eliminated tax breaks for the deployment of wind turbines and solar technologies—recommitting the nation to reliance on cheap but polluting fossil fuels, often from foreign suppliers. "The Department of Energy has a multibillion-dollar budget, in excess of $10 billion," Reagan said during an election debate with Carter, justifying his opposition to the latter's energy policies. "It hasn't produced a quart of oil or a lump of coal or anything else in the line of energy."

And in 1986 the Reagan administration quietly dismantled the White House solar panel installation while resurfacing the roof. "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. "Hey! This whole [renewable] R&D program is working, why don't you keep it?"

After they came down it took a soft-spoken administrator from a small environmental college in Maine to rescue the Carter panels from being a forgotten curiosity stored in the dark corner of a vast government warehouse.


  Greening the White House (USA) (26 kb)


Put Solar On It

TckTckTck (Global)

Solar on the White House

Energy Action Coalition (North America)

Unity College (Maine, USA)

10.10 Campaign (UK)


One Day on Earth (10.10.10)