David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter
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