Going Green at the White House: Where Have Jimmy Carter's Solar Panels Gone?

Sungevity founder Danny Kennedy had the opportunity to pitch the idea to President Obama during a Rose Garden event to honor Earth Day. He hopes that, with more than 7,300 signatures on the group's online petition, the White House will take note of growing support for solar power.

"To date, they've been very open to it and indicated some interest, and we just need to get to the point where they can say, 'Yes, we can,'" Kennedy said. "President Obama can give lots of speeches … but a much stronger statement are deeds of his words."

The White House first grappled with the question of installing solar roof panels in June 1979, when Jimmy Carter, an early advocate of greening practices, installed 32 solar panels on the White House roof. The panels, installed just above the Oval Office, were used to heat water in the White house staff kitchen, according to the Smithsonian Institution.

The original solar panels were removed in 1986 during the Reagan administration and placed in a government storage facility in Franconia, Va., just outside of Washington, DC.

In 2003, President George W. Bush quietly installed a series of three solar systems on the White House grounds, including panels on the pool cabana to help with water heating, according to the AP.

But to date, the roof of the White House still remains bare.

Carter's original White House solar panels found a new home in 1991: Unity College, a private liberal arts school in Unity, Maine, which emphasizes environmental practices among its students. Through private donations – including contributions from actress Glenn Close and the late Sen. Margaret Chase Smith – the college managed to refurbish 16 panels to place atop its school cafeteria.

"Here are these perfectly good panels that were just collecting dust, and here's something that was not only a piece of history, but also functional," said Peter Marbach, who acquired the panels while serving as director of advancement at Unity College. "It was just an opportunity not only to talk the talk but to walk the walk – to lead by example and show the students … what is possible, what can be done."

The solar panels were used to heat cafeteria water until their expiration in 2005, and while they are no longer functional, they continue to adorn the cafeteria rooftop. The remainders are housed in campus storage, said Unity College associate director of college communications, Mark Tardif.

Since acquiring them, the college has donated some of the original Carter solar panels – one to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in 2009; another to the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum in 2007; and a third on a one-year loan to Google, Inc. in 2009.

And at this weekend's Maine International Film Festival – where the final version of "A Road Not Taken," a Swiss documentary chronicling the history of the Carter solar panels, is scheduled for release – Unity College plans to donate two additional panels. One will go to the Washington, DC-based Solar Energy Industry Association, and another to the Himin Solar Energy Group, the largest solar manufacturing group in China, said Tardif.

"What's so significant about the Carter solar panels is that … politicians at the time were saying very much the same things you hear politicians saying now about renewable energy, about oil, about priorities, and it really is quite amazing that history repeats itself that way," Tardif said. "The symbolic aspect of that [is] very powerful."

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