Whatever Happened to Jimmy Carter's Solar Panels: The Sequel

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Public Domain. Jimmy Carter Presidential Library

Instead of an exciting adventure, we got a road not taken.

They are perhaps the most famous solar panels ever made, installed on the roof of the White House by President Jimmy Carter, who said at the time in 1979:

"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."

And, as he was with most things, Jimmy Carter was right; they are a museum piece. The panels supplied hot water for domestic purposes and for laundry, but were removed in the Reagan administration, ostensibly because roof repairs were needed but also, according to mechanical engineer Fred Morse, quoted in Scientific American:

"We had a new administration that really did not like renewables very much. I don't know if you remember those days when it was called alternative energy and there was something about 'alternative' that did not sit very well." So when the time came to resurface the roof, the panels were taken down. "It was working fine, but the decision was it was not cost-effective."

What Happened After the White House

It then became part of a lovely story as the panels were installed at Unity College in Maine in 1990, as a way of bringing attention to the school's mission of environmental education. They certainly succeeded at that; there was even a movie made about them, A Road not Taken.

Himin Solar Valley

Himin Solar Valley

Solar thermal panels are full of plumbing and water and don't last forever; the old designs were not very efficient. Unity College stopped using them in 2005, at which point they literally became museum pieces at the Smithsonian and, notably, in China. One was given to the Himin Solar Energy Group (now the world's largest manufacturer of solar thermal panels), which donated it to the Technology Museum in Dezhou, near Solar City.

A Symbol for the Future of Energy

Himin headquarters

Himin Headquarters, Solar Valley

They probably are laughing about it, how the USA missed this opportunity, while they sit in Solar City with millions of square meters of solar panels on every building, including their crazy round headquarters that is almost completely built out of solar panels, both thermal and photovoltaic.

NRG Panel

NRG Systems

Now one of the panels has been installed in the offices of NRG Systems. Its president, Justin Wheating, says in a press release: “We are proud to showcase this remarkable piece of American history and we continue to be inspired by President Carter’s vision for a more sustainable future."

I can't help but think how sad it looks, one useless panel hanging in front of a stone wall, available to the public by appointment only. Imagine what might have been, how every building in America might have looked like Solar City. If only it had been, as Carter wanted, "a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people," instead of a reminder of that road not taken.