Credit: Courtesy of Mark Tardif
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.
A long, strange trip
In 1991 Peter Marbach was newly minted development director at Unity College in Maine, which was facing a severe budget crisis. Marbach needed to find a way to bring attention—and hopefully donations—to the struggling college and its mission: environmental education. Leafing through a magazine, he stumbled across a picture. “There was this photograph of the solar panels, but they were all sort of disheveled and sort of tossed in a corner in this government service warehouse in Franconia, Virginia,” he recalls. “It was just such a waste.”
Marbach, lithe from years of mountain climbing and other outdoor pursuits, seems slow to anger, but his eyes, crinkled at the edges from years of smiling, still flash when asked to recollect what inspired his rescue mission. Yet he doesn’t sound angry, so much as bemused. “It was in that instant where I was just so filled with anger and disappointment that: How could this happen?” he says. “Wouldn’t it be something if I could somehow find a way to get these panels and resurrect them?”
Marbach wrote to former President Carter, who wrote back: “It would please me very much to see those panels in use again.” He also enlisted the aid of Maine’s former U.S. senator, William Cohen. Armed with Carter’s letter and Cohen’s support he contacted the General Services Administration—the independent government agency that is landlord to other government agencies and generally runs the physical stuff of government. The GSA determined Unity was eligible as an institution of higher learning to take the panels for an administrative fee of $500.
The panels weighed more than 45 kilograms each and there were 32 of them. Marbach just had a battered, blue school bus that was mostly used to carry the school soccer team to away games nearby. “The soccer coach was giving me a hard time,” Marbach chuckles as he remembers. “He said, ‘You realize that if you take that bus and drive it down there I have no excuse to ask the administration to get us a new bus because that will prove the bus can go that far.'”
Marbach pressed on, stripping the seats out of the bus to make room for his cargo and enduring a bumpy and loud trip down the eastern seaboard. Once in Virginia, he pulled up to the grounds of a federal warehouse he describes as much like the fictional one used to store the Ark of the Covenant in the first Indiana Jones movie, “just bigger” and stacked with unused furniture and crates of office supplies rather than mysterious archaeological artifacts. A golf cart and an attendant drove Marbach through the cavernous space, where he found the solar panels in a dim corner gathering dust instead of sunlight. Some were broken. “It just looked like there was not a lot of thought given to taking care of these things,” Marbach says.
David Biello is a contributing editor at Scientific American. He has been reporting on the environment and energy since 1999