The History of Solar Energy at the White House

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Forty years ago, President Jimmy Carter became the first president who acknowledged the need for renewable energy by having 32 solar panels installed on the West Wing roof of the White House. The panels served as a source of solar energy in the cafeteria, the laundry, and other sections of the White House. Renewable energy provided the White House with a solar water heater for seven years, until President Ronald Reagan had the solar panels removed in 1986.

In addition to having solar panels installed atop the roof of the White House, President Carter made a commitment to renewable energy research by increasing the budget for the Department of Energy and provided tax credits for those who invested in solar power. However, when Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, he cut back on funding for alternative energy research, and as a result, the U.S. fell behind other nations in renewable energy research and development.

The White House would not utilize alternative energy for another 17 years until George W. Bush had the first solar electric system installed at the White House. The solar energy system provided electricity and hot water on White House property and was also used to keep the presidential pool warm.

In 2010, President Obama signed a bill to increase efforts in renewable energy, with a goal of spending up to $2 billion to make federal buildings energy efficient. Three years later, the reinstallation of solar panels began atop the White House roof. The project made the White House more energy-efficient and also helped bring awareness to climate change and the need for energy conservation.

Then United States Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, said, “This project reflects President Obama's strong commitment to U.S. leadership in solar energy and the jobs it will create here at home. Deploying solar energy technologies across the country will help America lead the global economy for years to come.”

Completion of Solar Panels at the White House

The solar panel system that was completed in 2013 converted sunlight into electricity and a solar water heater provided the White House residence with hot water.

President Obama stated, “Cities, schools, businesses, the federal government – we're all going to pledge to waste less energy and we've got concrete strategies that we know work.”

The original solar panels that were installed atop the White House during Jimmy Carter’s presidency were kept in government storage until 1991, when Unity College in Maine refurbished and installed 16 of the 32 panels atop its cafeteria. The solar panels provided Unity College’s cafeteria with hot water until 2005, having taken advantage of the total lifespan of the panels.

In 2010, a documentary was made about the original White House solar panels that President Jimmy Carter had installed in 1979. The documentary, titled “A Road Not Taken,” follows the history of solar panels that sat atop the West Wing of the White House from 1979 to 1986.

Today, some of the original White House panels can be seen at museums in the United States and in China: the panels can be seen at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington D.C., Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, and the Solar Science and Technology Museum in Dezhou, China. NRG Systems, a Vermont based company that manufactures wind and solar technology, also displays one of Jimmy Carter’s solar panels at its headquarters.

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