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The White House is going solar – once again
October 11, 2010
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by Mark Ollig

It was 1979.

President Jimmy Carter had given his approval for the installation of 32 solar thermal panels to be installed on the roof of the White House.

Once the solar panels were installed, President Carter, from the roof of the White House, celebrated the installation with members of the press and others.

“A generation from now, this solar heater could 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,” Carter predicated during his rooftop speech in June of 1979.

In the late 1970s, President Carter was in charge at a time when this country was reeling through a terrible energy crisis.

We were suffering from severe gas shortages during the aftermath of the OPEC oil embargo, when oil production was dramatically reduced, causing gas shortages and fluctuating prices.

Folks my age and older will remember having to wait in long lines to fill our cars with gas.

Many times we would see the “No Gas” signs hanging out in front of the gas stations.

The problems we faced back then weren’t only the rising cost per gallon of gas – it was mostly trying to find a gas station with gasoline available at the pumps.

There were many weekends when no gas was available, so people (like me) would try to keep their car’s gas tanks as close to full as possible.

I clearly remember during the week trying not to go below a half-tank of gas so I could get through the weekends; as several gas stations would be closed. Many times the local gas station owner would say, “The gas truck never made it here.”

Some folks (no humble columnist names will be mentioned) even stored gas-filled 5-gallon cans in their garages as a “reserve” in case of extended gasoline outages.

Personally, I had felt Carter’s installation of the solar panels was done more or less as a gesture to make the country aware of the need to use other sources of energy in order to reduce our dependence of oil from foreign sources.

President Carter’s solar panel system contained 32 photovoltaic panels and generated enough energy to supply the hot water needs for the entire White House, including the presidential dinning room.

In 1986, former President Ronald Reagan had the Carter solar panels removed during “roof repairs,” as one story reported it. Another story said Reagan had them removed and placed in storage because he felt the energy crisis Carter had confronted was over.

In any case, the solar panels ended up at Unity College, in rural Maine.

Some panels were installed on the roof of the college’s cafeteria (one solar panel was donated to the Jimmy Carter Museum and another was recently given to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History).

Now, some 25 years later, brand new solar panels will be installed once again on the roof of the White House.

President Barrack Obama agreed to have new solar panels installed in early 2011.

This past September, an environmental activist and author, Bill McKibben, along with a group of students from Maine, drove in a van (powered by bio-diesel fuel) to the White House.

Inside the van was one of the original “Carter solar panels,” which was still in working order.

The group from Maine wanted President Obama to re-install this original 1979 solar panel to its former location on the roof of the White House.

“It could be a trigger for a wave of solar installations across the country and around the world,” said McKibben.

A White House official did meet with the group, but in the end, the administration deciding against re-installing the original solar panel.

It seems old White House solar panels never die; they just end up in museums or in Maine.

Recently, Energy Secretary Steven Chu spoke before a clean energy conference at George Washington University and said, “By the end of this spring, there will be solar panels, that convert sunlight into electricity and a solar hot water heater, on the roof of the White House.”

The new solar panels will be used for two separate systems. One will convert sunlight into energy to provide electricity, and the other will heat water to provide for the hot water needs inside the executive mansion.

Your investigative columnist discovered there will be a total of 50 new solar panels installed.

I found a picture taken of President Jimmy Carter with a group of people in 1979, as they stood on the roof of the White House. The President was making comments to them in front of the newly installed solar panels. I made a shortened link for it: http://goo.gl/MW7B.

Sixteen of those original solar panels from the Carter White House still reside on the roof of the Unity college cafeteria in Maine.

Suddenly, I am starting to feel like it’s 1979 all over again . . . just to be safe; I better fill up the car today.


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