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Jimmy Carter’s solar panel makes it back to Washington, but not back onto the White House

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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In 1979, President Jimmy Carter had 32 panels installed atop the White House to capture the sun’s heat. Thirty-odd years later, at least one of the panels still works, warming up in the Northeastern sunlight of Boston and sending steam heat out of a spigot on September 8, en route down the east coast from its temporary home at Unity College in Maine. By September 10, that panel had made it back to the White House, courtesy of dedicated Unity College students and environmental campaigner Bill McKibben.

It did not receive a warm homecoming.

"They handed us a pamphlet," Jean Altomare, one of the Unity students, told The New York Times of her meeting with White House officials to urge them to reinstall the solar panel. "I actually confronted the fact that what happens in the next few years will determine the quality of the lives my children and their children will have. We went in without any doubt about the importance of this."

At a September 8 rally when the panel and its advocates made a pit stop in New York City at Solar One, a solar-powered building in Stuyvesant Cove Park, McKibben called the White House "important real estate." After First Lady Michelle Obama planted a vegetable garden on the White House grounds in 2009 seed sales went up by 30 percent the following year. The hope was to do the same for solar power, which could ultimately replace fossil fuel-fired power plants and their emissions of greenhouse gases to forestall catastrophic climate change.

The dream of restoring the panels may be a bit quixotic, however. After all, it took literally years of negotiation to put the panels up in the first place, according to mechanical engineer Fred Morse of Abengoa Solar, who helped lead that effort. And certainly the layers of bureaucracy surrounding the U.S. president’s home have not lessened in the intervening years.

Some of the other buildings on the White House grounds do boast solar arrays, however, courtesy of President George W. Bush. The Obama administration has also ordered all federal agencies to come up with plans to reduce energy and water use as well as waste. And President Obama did send White House officials to meet with McKibben and the students. Those representatives noted the current President’s commitment to renewable energy, including more than $80 billion in stimulus and other federal money, as well as the nation’s first greenhouse gas standards for cars and other vehicles.

What those representatives didn’t do, however, is take the panel back, even as a museum piece. Perhaps it was all the environmental graffiti scrawled on it in orange, purple, black and, of course, green Sharpie ink. "Save the polar bears. And Florida," wrote Christopher and Andrea Judd. "Put it back," urged McKibben. We [heart] solar," wrote Meredith Collins.

Carter put up the panels in part as a symbol, of course. As McKibben notes, a May 1978 memo from Carter advisor Stuart Eizenstat laid out the logic: "It would provide a symbol of commitment that is understandable to all Americans, and would enable you to recapture the initiative in the solar energy area…. The White House experience will show, to the great number of interested but skeptical Americans, that solar energy is clean, practical, and worth the long-term investment."

Instead, it has been China that has made that investment, installing millions of solar hot water heaters in the past decade. Simply put, it is the cheaper option in that country, though it is no sunnier there than in the U.S. In fact, one of the White House solar panels now rests in the Solar Science and Technology Museum in the city of Dezhou, courtesy of Huang Ming, proprietor of China’s largest manufacturer of solar hot water heaters. "Everybody in China is busy putting these up on their roofs because they see it all the time," explained McKibben during the New York pit stop, fresh from a reporting assignment in China.

At the dedication ceremony in 1979, Carter predicted that "in the year 2000, this solar water heater behind me, which is being dedicated today, will still be here supplying cheap, efficient energy," a prediction that was dead wrong since the Reagan administration took the panels down a mere seven years later. But Carter did foresee some of the future: "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."

In 2010, it is a (homeless) example of a road not taken in the U.S.

Image: © David Biello

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  1. 1. wildthing 9:19 pm 09/10/2010

    Yeah well we have a long way to go to get back to the Carter mindset of our future learning how to live within the means of our planet!!!

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  2. 2. JamesDavis 8:25 am 09/11/2010

    If they can ever get solar panels to the point where they can be self-installed, like you can the battery on your car, and as affordable as is the battery for your car; more people would have solar panels on their homes. What person would not want to lower their utility bills and become self-contained. I can think of a lot of things I can do with those hundreds of dollars I shell over the the utility company every month. Unlike natural gas that I use for heating, I would not have to worry about the solar panel springing a leak and blowing me up while I sleep or blowing up my neighborhood.

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  3. 3. candide 11:04 am 09/11/2010

    @JamesDavis –
    Self install is probably a long way off.

    Right now many solar PV panels cost about $2 per watt – some a bit less. This means that the buy-back (breakeven) time is about 5-8 years – depending upon the specific installation.

    The general thought is that when solar panels cost less than $1 per watt, which is within the foreseeable future, their use will become much more affordable and the buy-back period will be much shorter. That price-point should speed up solar PV production and adoption dramatically.

    There are many interesting developments being carried out in solar PV, such as solar roof shingles – but there are also many other solar non-PV projects. This page "" has links to some projects.

    What concerns me is that this country seems so addicted to and unwilling to get off oil that the research and implementation leadership will fall to a country like China or Germany.

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  4. 4. sethdayal 5:19 pm 09/11/2010

    Professionally installed solar PV panels cost around $5 a watt or around 40 cents a kwh.

    Carter is an idiot. He pushed solar, and can you believe coal while destroying the American nuclear power industry.

    Since he replaced nuclear with coal,million Americans died from coal air pollution, 30 thousand annually

    Carter is responsible for the deaths of more Americans than all of the nations we faced in war put together.

    Now there is an American patriot.

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  5. 5. RondaGreen 5:57 pm 09/11/2010

    Here is Australia at least, photovoltaic solar cells can be self-installed if you are using low voltage. We run all our lighting as 12-volt flourescents, and have an inverter to increase to 240 for the appliances that need it. My husband and son just installed another three yesterday. They are still expensive though – we keep waiting for prices to drop. Solar water heating can’t, as far as I know, be self-installed though.

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  6. 6. dwbd 10:39 pm 09/11/2010

    What a ridiculous SCAM! For a good commentary on the Solar PV charade see:

    Although, $43k per kwavg, 10X the cost of reliable, clean, green Nuclear Energy is an understatement. How many owners do the maintenance on their Solar PV, like cleaning them weekly. I know a fellow who had Solar Hot Water on his roof, and then sold his house, and the new owners tore it down because they didn’t like how it looks. How many Regan’s are there who could care less about Solar Power and will not even bother to reset a circuit breaker to get the Solar Power panels on their new home working? And how many like Shade Trees a lot more than they like Solar Power and don’t trim the trees that shade their Solar Panels?

    If you add those effects, double the cost. Add the ABSOLUTELY INESCAPABLE backup/shadowing energy storage and you can double the cost again. So 40X the cost of clean, green, safe Nuclear Energy. This is an example of INEXCUSABLE STUPIDITY. A Bait-And-Switch SCAM promoted by Big Oil/NG in order to misdirect any effort, capital or resources from the ONLY alternative to their noxious product – Nuclear Energy – Big Oil’s Nightmare come true.

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  7. 7. MCMalkemus 3:57 am 09/12/2010

    Here’s a prediction: until the powerful oil lobbyists are no more, solar power will not take off in America. Kudos China, you are ahead of the curve on this one.

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  8. 8. dbtinc 9:42 am 09/12/2010

    addiction to oil? Yes and no. The problem is that there is ABSOLUTELY no leadership in moving past oil. Lots of cheap talk for 40 years but no movement. The Chinese government knows how to do these major projects as they are single-minded and not crippled by the special interests. Behold the century of the Chinese. Maybe we can learn something from them.

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  9. 9. lakota2012 2:01 am 09/13/2010

    @candide, "Right now many solar PV panels cost about $2 per watt"
    @sethdayal, "Professionally installed solar PV panels cost around $5 a watt"
    @dwbd, "For a good commentary on the Solar PV"

    Hey, WAKE-UP!

    It never ceases to amaze me how quick the usual propagandists jump at every chance to bash solar power, but this article is clearly about solar HOT WATER panels installed on the White House over 30 years ago — NOT PV!!!!

    They are clearly outdated, since the best solar HOT WATER devices today are evacuated tubes, which are much more efficient and even work on cloudy days. Since domestic hot water is one of the biggest energy uses for any house, solar HOT WATER production is one of the best uses of clean and green solar power known to mankind!

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  10. 10. Beehom 9:53 am 09/13/2010

    Indeed, the producing process of the solar panels pollutes the evironment and destroys the nature. This techonology can be thought of the method of the clean energy except making the solar panels without pollution.

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  11. 11. dwbd 10:47 am 09/13/2010

    lakota, show us some numbers on Solar Hot Water. I’m not too familiar with the technology.

    I’m really hoping to see that you can give us a solid, honest, no-bull analysis. With all the calculations & links. An education for all of us.

    Your first one!

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  12. 12. lakota2012 11:49 am 09/13/2010

    @beehom, "solar panels pollutes the environment…"


    If it was up to people like you parroting the typical BIG OIL and fossil fuel disinformation campaign about clean and green renewable energy, we would remain stuck firmly in the past of the 19th-20th centuries, using the last drop of dirty OIL and the other nasty fossil fuels, instead of moving forward with NEW IDEAS and SOLUTIONS for the 21st century!

    Try ‘thinking’ for yourself just once, and understand that mining, drilling, transportation and burning of fossil fuels is far more detrimental to our environment, than manufacturing solar HOT WATER and solar PV panels that will get their free energy from Our Sun for decades, without emitting one iota of greenhouse gases or other pollution!

    Each day, Our Sun delivers enough energy to support ALL life on our planet, and this free and abundant power has the grace to rival every energy source known to mankind!

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  13. 13. lakota2012 11:54 am 09/13/2010

    @dwbd, "show us some numbers on Solar Hot Water.."

    It is not my job to do homework for the lazy propagandists, and those that worship the manufactured doubt industry!

    Each day, Our Sun delivers enough energy to support ALL life on our planet, and this free and abundant power has the grace to rival every energy source known to mankind!

    Link to this
  14. 14. sethdayal 12:01 pm 09/13/2010

    So you have nothing right? Just your opinion based on your imagination.

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  15. 15. Hermit 3:07 pm 09/13/2010

    Jimmy Carter gave us tax credits to build a passive solar house with solar heated hot water in 1979. He wanted to promote direct heating from the sun for domestic heat and hot water and it works great. We’ve heated 1740 sqft (very warm) in 7000 Degree Day Michigan for 30 years with 2 cords of firewood per winter and enjoyed almost free hot water from May through October every year.

    Too bad most of the 40 million houses built since then had no building code demanding insulated pipes running from the basement to the roof for future solar hot water collectors. Too bad no south windows and siting were used for any direct solar heat gain through the windows in winter in the north (opposite in the south for cooling.) There are 88 million houses in America today so almost half of them would use much less energy if it weren’t for New Cornucopian lunatics like Ronald Reagan and friends.

    Now we are stuck trying to generate all that excess power for heating and cooling with expensive and polluting PV’s when we could have done it with existing technologies and started saving oil 30 years ago. But all the American solar collector manufacturers in my 30 year old magazines have gone out business long ago due to no business.

    It’s hard for me to get real excited with expensive and polluting PV’s as a long term solution to some very short sighted stupidity.

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  16. 16. lakota2012 12:11 pm 09/14/2010

    @sethdayal, "So you have nothing right?"

    NO, actually it was YOU that had nothing but the usual anti-solar propaganda and attacks on the photovoltaic industry, when clearly this article was about solar HOT WATER!

    Seems that you don’t get enough SciAm articles these days to post your anti-solar rants or pro-nookular propaganda, and apparently don’t know the difference between PV and HOT WATER, which is actually very sad.

    How’s that backyard nookular reactor project coming along, since my PV, solar HOT WATER and WIND TURBINE are all working well these days, and will for decades to come?

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  17. 17. lakota2012 1:36 pm 09/14/2010

    @hermit, "But all the American solar collector manufacturers in my 30 year old magazines have gone out business long ago due to no business. "

    While I definitely agree that we need much more NeoMalthusian vision for the 21st century than archaic cornucopian lunatics like saint ronnie and today’s denialists still ‘thinking’ that our supply of resources is basically infinite, and excessive emissions will never harm us.

    When the Carter tax incentives for renewable energy were ended by saint ronnie, we began the 30 years of offshoring technology (and jobs) started in the USA, to places like Japan and Europe. Although I haven’t followed many of the earlier solar companies, I do know that Solarex of Frederick, Maryland in the 1970′s, was a pioneering company, far ahead of its time. Today, what was once Solarex is now part of the BP Solar chain of solar production facilities scattered around the globe. While numerous factors including the global financial crisis and low-cost solar products from China have caused a drop in PV pricing of up to 50% today, it’s pretty hard to say that PV is expensive at less than $2 per watt. Also, from what I understand in the industry, production of newer thin-film, frameless PV will be available at about $1 per watt, using much less silicon material and less manufacturing.

    Although this article was about solar HOT WATER, an extremely efficient way to heat domestic HOT WATER or HEAT your house with free and abundant energy from the sun like you have done for 30 years, I sincerely believe we live in exciting times for renewable energy, since we must replace our finite and dirty fossil fuels, and that there’s a breakthrough with solar energy right around the corner. It just seems that well-entrenched lobbyists, part of the manufactured doubt industry, will continue to try to persuade the easily-manipulated Americans, that renewable energy is just not worth the investment, but it is!

    Each day Our Sun delivers enough energy to support all life on our planet, and this free, abundant power has the grace to rival every energy source known to mankind.

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  18. 18. lakota2012 1:51 pm 09/14/2010

    I just love the way the denialists can push antiquated fossil fuels on America, and still parrot the sayings like "clean natural gas," and how much cheaper it is than renewable energy.

    But that’s using 50-year old infrastructure that just blew away an entire neighborhood, and using halli-cheney-burton technology of fracking, which undoubtedly pollutes aquifers for drinking water, and still needs to be burned like all fossil fuels which just releases tons of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere that last for 100 years or longer!

    Yes, solar panels need to be manufactured so they can be used to convert Our Sun’s free and abundant energy into electricity and hot water, but the newest methods are greener and cleaner than just a few years ago, and once installed, they work effortlessly for decades with free fuel from the sun.

    I guess that’s the biggest problem, that BIG OIL and the rest of the GREEDY fossil fuel industry cannot charge us on a daily basis for renewable energy, and will fight their loss of profits over the next few decades tooth and nail, until the last drop of OIL or the last tank of gas has been burned.

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  19. 19. lakota2012 2:01 pm 09/14/2010


    BTW, just like huge changes in the PV industry over the past 30 years, the newest solar HOT WATER "Evacuated Tube Solar Collectors," make the old flat panel collectors like the one pictured here, look and work like antiques. Since they are much more efficient than the flat panel collectors, you can actually have HOT WATER in Michigan in the winter and on cloudy days! I know, because they work in the Rocky Mtns. at altitude!

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  20. 20. jrsoper 4:04 pm 09/23/2010

    From a publicity standpoint — for alternative energy sources — the idea is great. But if Jimmy Carter is included in the deal, ABSOLUTELY NOT!

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  21. 21. MorinMoss 2:31 am 01/21/2011

    The COAL industry killed all those Americans. From what I remember coal was supposed to be a short-term goal. If Reagan had any better ideas, he had 2 terms (minus getting shot and passing out at the dinner table) to get it done. Not to mention the Presidents who came after – what about their (lack of) concern for the health of the American public?

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  22. 22. MorinMoss 2:39 am 01/21/2011

    Calm down before your cApS lOCk explodes. Are you counting the cost of disposal of nuclear waste as well as the end-of-life decommissioning costs of a nuclear plant? I certainly hope so. If you’re doing Solar on a large commercial scale, you can use energy storage, say molten salt, to deal with intermittency. It’s a ways from perfect but it’s still pretty good. I doubt Big Oil’s nightmare is nuclear power – many of them own chunks of some of the biggest nuclear players.

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