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

Solar technology made its White House debut more than 30 years ago.

ByJulie Percha
July 15, 2010, 4:31 PM

July 16, 2010 -- As part of his push for clean energy jobs, President Obama last week went solar, announcing almost $2 billion in funding for construction of some of the world's largest solar energy plants.

But with climate change legislation at a standstill as Congress races to complete other big items before its August recess – including the Elena Kagan nomination, unemployment benefits and the war funding bill – some environmental activists say the move is not enough.

"People are very tired of the fact that, for the 20 years that we've known about climate change, Congress has essentially done nothing," said Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, an international climate change action group.

McKibben and his group took matters into their own hands last week with the launch of "Put Solar On It!," an online campaign that petitions world leaders to install solar panels on their residences on Oct. 10, 2010. The date coincides with the group's Global Work Party, a day of international greening projects.

Among the targeted world leaders are President Felipe Calderon of Mexico, President Hu Jintao of China, Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom and Obama. So far, only one head of state, President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives, has signed on to install panels.

Still, McKibben is optimistic that the White House will join in the solar campaign.

"There's a lot of flat space up there on the roof of the White House – it's a nice, big Southern exposure. There's no reason that they couldn't produce a lot, probably all, of the hot water that they use, and some good share of the electricity," McKibben said. "This will be a great opportunity, a fun opportunity, for him to re-connect with all those people who have been hoping for action."

The First Family has made a point to set an environmentally friendly example with First Lady Michelle Obama planting an organic vegetable garden on the South Lawn and hosting an eco-friendly Easter Egg roll.

In a speech last week at the University of Nevada, Obama urged Congress to spur private-sector jobs by expanding the Advanced Energy Manufacturing Tax Credit to $5 billion – more than double the amount of clean energy tax credits available last year.

In pushing to spur private-sector jobs, Obama praised the clean energy sector as "an industry that will not only produce jobs of the future, but help free America from our dependence on foreign oil in the process, clean up our environment in the process, improve our national security in the process."

And as the president and the First Family continue a public push for eco-friendly actions, the White House says work is underway.

"I know there has been discussion of solar panels," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs in February.

In the meantime, President Obama has directed the entire federal government to make green improvements – including the use of more solar power at buildings other than the White House.

In May, Obama was asked when the panels will go up on the White House.

"I think it's a great idea," he said.

In April, the California-based solar company Sungevity, a partner with 350.org, offered to install free solar panels on the White House roof. The panels would produce up to 17.8 kilowatts of energy and could reduce the White House electric bill by up to 80 percent, based on estimates of similarly sized houses, according to a virtual price quote on Sungevity's "Solar on the White House" initiative Web site.

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."

When Obama and the First Family travel to Mount Desert Island, Maine, this weekend on a mini-vacation, they'll be less than 60 miles east of Unity College and the original Carter solar panels.

But for alternative energy advocates like McKibben, the push is on to move solar energy closer to the White House.

"There's no silver bullet against global warming," said McKibben. "There might be enough silver buckshot if we carefully pick up every piece, and the roof of the White House is one highly symbolic place to start making that effort."

ABC News' Sunlen Miller contributed to this report.

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