University uncovers solar relics

The Solar Science and Technology Museum in Dezhou, China, last week received one of 32 solar panels once installed on the roof of the White House and later forgotten to collect dust in a government storage facility.

Unity College in Maine rescued half of the panels from the dark storage area about five years after the Ronald Reagan administration removed them in 1986. That was the same year Reagan eliminated government research funding for renewable energy sources and tax credits for wind turbine and solar panel installations.

Reagan reversed a movement away from dependence on foreign fossil fuels and interest in cultivating the United States’ natural renewable energy resources started by President Jimmy Carter.

Carter, in response to the 1970s oil crisis, instituted still-unmatched tax incentives and research funding for renewable energy.

He’s famous for saying, “The sun can’t be embargoed” in reference to the 1973-’74 Arab oil embargo.

Carter, in a symbolic move, installed the 32 photovoltaic panels on the roof of the White House to heat his family’s water supply in 1979. In a speech unveiling the panels on June 30 of that year, he postulated on the future of the panels.

"In the year 2000 this solar water heater behind me, which is being dedicated today, will still be here supplying cheap, efficient energy,” he said. “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."

In the end, all of his predictions for the possible end of the panels on his roof came true. Along with the panel that was delivered to Chine Aug. 5, one is exhibited in the Smithsonian Museum of Science and Industry.

Before Unity College director Peter Marbach rescued the neglected panels from storage in 1991, they were forgotten altogether along the “road not taken.” Now half of them still supply hot water at the college’s cafeteria and the rest of them coming out of the dark shadows of our Nation’s forgotten history signify the start of a new chapter.

Reagen said in 1979 that he hoped the United States would derive 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources like solar by the turn of the century.

Today, we get 7 percent of our energy from renewable sources, and nearly all of that comes from hydroelectric dams. Less than 1 percent comes from solar and wind sources.

Students from Unity College will take the rest of the panels back to the White House this September, signifying the beginning of a new era. The students are going on a solar road trip with Bill McKibben and the Put Solar On It team, making stops along the way to promote the use of solar energy.