Solar power at the White House is an ideal way to showcase U.S. commitment to renewable energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The White House, home to U.S. presidents and an American icon, has been graced with a few solar panels over the past several decades—a very few.
While researching the history of solar power and photovoltaics, I was reminded of the first solar installation at the White House back in the late 1970s. That led to a short side trip to learn about the history of solar power at the White House.
1979 – First Solar Installation at the White House
On June 20, 1979, President Jimmy Carter dedicated the first White House solar project. 32 solar thermal collectors were installed on the West Wing roof to heat water for the White House. InterTechnology/Solar Corp. manufactured the $28,000 system. President Carter made the following remarks during 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: harnessing the power of the Sun to enrich our lives as we move away from our crippling dependence on foreign oil.”
1986 – Solar Thermal Collectors are Removed from the White House
In 1986, during the Reagan administration, the solar thermal collectors installed by President Carter were removed during a roof refurbishment project. They were never re-installed and ended up in a government warehouse in Franconia, Virginia.
Reagan press secretary Dale Petroskey, told the Associated Press, “Putting them back up would be very unwise, based on cost.”
1992 – Solar Thermal Collectors get a New Home
In 1992, Unity College in Maine obtained 16 of the 32 solar thermal collectors for an administrative fee of $500. The panels were installed on the college cafeteria roof and provided hot water until they were decommissioned in 2005. Since then, the solar collectors have been making their way to various institutions including the Jimmy Carter Library & Museum, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, and the Solar Science and Technology Museum in Dezhou, China.
While President George W. Bush was in office, three small solar projects were completed at the White House in 2003. Solar Design Associates designed the systems using modules manufactured by Evergreen Solar.
An 8.3 kWh photovoltaic system (enough power for 1-2 homes) was installed on the roof of a grounds maintenance building for the National Park Service, which maintains the White House grounds. The system of 167 solar panels was designed to feed electricity into the White House ground’s distribution system.
Two thermal systems were installed, one to heat the pool and spa and another to provide hot water for the White House. Thermal solar panels were integrated into a new roof on the pool cabana.
2010 – Solar Installation Promised at the White House
During the GreenGov Symposium in October 2010, U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced President Obama’s commitment to lead by example and his promise to install solar panels to heat water and generate electricity at the White House by the end of spring 2011.
As of the writing on this post in March 2013, President Obama’s promise to install solar power at the White House has not been fulfilled.
- Scientific American – Where Did the Carter White House’s Solar Panels Go?
- Solar Today – Solar at the White House
- The American Presidency Project – President Jimmy Carter’s Solar Energy Remarks Announcing Administration Proposals June 20, 1979
- The American Presidency Project – President Jimmy Carter’s Solar Energy Message to the Congress June 20, 1979
- The Washington Post – George C. Szego, 88; Solar Energy Leader, ‘Mr. Space Power’
- The White House Historical Association – White House History Timelines: Technology
- The Yale forum on Climate Change & The Media – Jimmy Carter’s Solar Panels: A Lost History That Haunts Today