Friday, June 19, 2009

Back to the future: Gnawing on a rock, part 2

Flashback to June 20th, 1979.

Then-President Jimmy Carter held the first and only press conference on the White House roof to dedicate an array of solar hot water panels. The array was intended as a good example to the American people of renewable energy design and leadership. At that time, flat plate solar thermal collectors were state-of-the-art. Today they pale in comparison to the efficiency of evacuated tube systems, but are still a very accessible technology -- the easiest type of solar panel for kids to make for science fairs, or for you to make in your own back yard.

They were however, a short-lasting example. Taken down during the Reagan era, possibly for political reasons, possibly just to fix a roof, they were not replaced until 2003 when the National Park Service put up both solar PV and solar thermal arrays on a White House building.

Tomorrow (June 20th) is the 3oth anniversary of the dedication of the original panels. Who knew? My friend and videographer Roman Keller, who with Christina Hamauer made a beautiful and very poignant movie about the Jimmy Carter energy legacy that you can read about here here, just called to tell me this.

At the time the "Jimmy Carter Solar Panels" were a great example, and many people loved the gesture Carter made towards a more sensible energy policy. Ask any American that is politically green-ish and also over 50 years old about the Jimmy Carter solar panels, and you'll likely hear some fond memories and not a little remaining pique about the unproven myth that "Ronald Reagan took them down."

(You also read endless editorials to Obama about how he should put them back up. The lazy authors, of course, haven't done their research and so don't know that there is that very good 2003 demonstration solar array already on the White House, placed there, ironically, during the George Bush administration. As an applied scientist who loves facts I find this very frustrating, and another example of what I see as the failure of professional standards among journalists. Although I don't know, and would like to know, if Bush had any part in the decision to replace them.)

Unity College inherited the system from the GSA surplus program in 1993 and installed them on our cafeteria roof. They ran well for a few years until the heat exchanger rotted out. They remain disused on the roof for now, but we kept a few in storage and have been fixing them up a little and giving them out to museums and renewable energy displays in dribs and drabs as opportunity allows.

This is ironic because Jimmy Carter clearly said in his dedication speech that one day the panels would either be a "museum piece" or part of a new energy future. Hear that part of the speech in this clip from Roman and Christina's movie below:

President Carter, of all living past presidents, is perhaps most likely to admit to his mistakes. This one is admittedly small. In the case of these panels, they became both a museum piece and a pointer to our energy future.

Jimmy Carter also once said that trying to get Americans to kick the oil habit was like "gnawing on a rock." I tend to agree. I should know. I've been working on it for long enough.

But things are moving.

Right now I'm still stiff and sore from Wednesday's big day placing the wind turbine test tower on the roof of that old USAF building at Charleston. The number of requests we've been getting for similar wind studies, as communities and state agencies speed up their implementation of renewable energy deployment in response to the stimulus package and other new incentives from the Obama administration, is just phenomenal. I'm busier than the proverbial one-armed paper-hanger with all these requests.

Today, luckily, it's raining, and a rest day, so I plan to stay home and putter and nap and catch up on my thoughts.

And so it happened that when Roman called from Zurich to tell me about the anniversary, I was pleased, and it made me thoughtful. He wanted to know if the US was finally moving on renewables.

I was able to say yes.

And that, my friends, is the real Jimmy Carter legacy, because an awful lot of us in this renewable energy industry owe our inspiration, ideas, and much of our technology to the Carter era energy programs, especially those at the Department of Energy, whose data and ideas I use almost daily.

All Obama has done so far is fully fund the energy programs that Carter began and Reagan cut.

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