Sunday, December 8, 2013

Solar on the White House -- a long strange trip

Photo: Unity SEM students dismantle a Jimmy Carter solar panel for cleaning.

With what seems to be zero fanfare and virtually no explanation, the Obama administration has brought solar power back to the main White House building for the first time since 1987. This is the quiet culmination of an interesting process, one in which I was intimately involved. It all started for me when, having been assigned my first-ever private professorial office at Unity College in the fall of 2000, I looked out of my window while chatting with a colleague, Dr. Chris Beach, and he explained to me that the solar panels I was looking at, not ten feet from said window, were the famous Jimmy Carter solar panels and had formerly belong to the federal government and been installed on the White House. Unity College's former development director, Peter Marbach, had been instrumental in saving them from decaying in the federal warehousing system. They were disconnected and disused, the heat exchanger tank having rusted out. But there they were. The original and genuine Jimmy Carter solar panels. A piece of American history. On my small college's roof, no less.

I already knew the story, which had been kind of an urban myth in the environmental world for many years. Jimmy Carter had placed the panels on the White House in 1979, as part of his ground-breaking new energy policy. Ronald Reagan had them removed, as some kind of reactionary vengeance sponsored by the fossil fuel lobby, against the green power industry.

At least, that's how the myth went. The truth, as I was later to find out, was somewhat more complicated. But for the time being, I was both personally and professionally fascinated by the panels and their history. Sitting just a few feet away from my office chair, perfectly visible every working day, they were hard to ignore. I just didn't know what to do with them. Although soon appointed as the college's first Sustainability Committee chair, in effect the first Sustainability Coordinator, I was way too busy, struggling, along with my committee, to make sure we had properly recycled paper, efficient appliances, properly insulated buildings, proper carbon accounts, and the hundred and one other items that are on the Sustainability Coordinator's to-do list, as well as teaching our required courses in sustainability, so I had little to no time left to figure out how to use the Jimmy Carter panels, or even how to think about them very much at all.

Except that I did know that the college had something important here, and that we did need to find a way to think about them and use them. If there was ever a great story to tell about the Little College That Could, this was one. This small fact kept presenting itself, nagging at me almost daily.

A further dozen or more panels from the same provenance were in the college's storage buildings. They'd been there since 1991, when they were placed there by Peter Marbach, after installing the rest on the Cafeteria roof. Sometime in the early 2000s, I researched the panels' history, with the help of the college's Board Secretary, Chris Melanson, collecting a solid file on provenance. It was interesting to read the story, all there in black and white on faded newsprint and letterhead. There was even a letter from President Carter himself. I also dug out some of the stored panels, in the summer of 2003, and experimented with them to see if they could be reused. They worked fine, apart from some grime inside and out that had to be cleaned off, requiring them to be dismantled.

It was also in 2003, in the fall, that I asked for a meeting with then-President of the College David Glenn-Lewin, and proposed that we use the panels for outreach and fund-raising, and spend whatever money we got on sustainability initiatives. I remember this proposal was treated with near-derision by some of the college's professional staff at the time. How on earth anyone could value what seemed to be a pile of rusty old junk was beyond them. But David, after some persuasion, saw the point.

This proposition had to go to the Board, but they agreed too, and the college's then very small development department was brought into the loop. I made a web page and posted it, saying that we were looking for ways to use the panels and that anyone with any interest was to contact me.

Soon enough, letters began to trickle in, most of which were more or less unworthy suggestions that we donate them or sell them for use as household solar panels. This in some ways would have been preferable to them sitting disused, either on the cafeteria roof or in storage, but I thought we could do better. I called around and eventually made some connections, to the Smithsonian, and to the Carter Center in Atlanta, as well as one or two of the people, Peter Marbach and Steven Strong, that had been involved in the early days.

It took an email in slightly broken English from a Swiss-German videography team, Christina Hemauer and Roman Keller, to really get the ball rolling. Christina and Roman were intrigued by the story, and wanted to take one of the panels on a road trip to make a documentary about US energy policy built around the panel and the memories associated with it, interviewing people as they went. They came to visit, and I hooked them up with two of our key students, both on the Sustainability Committee, both still part of the Unity College community, Sara Trunzo and Jason Reynolds.

By the time Christina and Roman actually visited, Jason was Sustainability Coordinator, I was Interim Provost and Mark Lapping was President, so it was easy to get permission to release the panel into Roman and Christina's care.

Sara and Jason, Christina and Roman together took the road trip, in what was then Sara's vegetable oil-powered truck. The movie, A Road Not Taken, is quite excellent, and very poignant, except for one thing -- I'm seen misquoting the date of the panel installation and removal! This was just a mis-spoken line, filmed during an extemporaneous interview. In an out-take not used by the editors, there's what I think is a better clip of me, explaining why I think that America will one day come to its collective senses with regard to sustainability.

But I should admit it, and move on. I'm not photogenic. My Hollywood career was over before it had even begun.

Here's the movie trailer:

The road trip finished in Atlanta, where the panel was donated to the Carter Center and Museum through the good offices of Jay Hakes, Director, one of the contacts I made during my research (who now has a 2008 book out about energy independence).

Another panel was taken to the Smithsonian, a little later, by Sara and Jason.

The college then turned its attention to other sustainability issues, including our two prototype passive solar buildings, now built, among other things. Aaron Witham, the college's third Sustainability Coordinator, now at Green Mountain, shipped one to Google in 2009, to go on display at Washington DC.

I continued to use them in classes. At the top of this post, students are dismantling one.

The movie, although finished soon enough, took several years to get any kind of audience. Its reach built only slowly. But other things were in motion, including the advent to climate advocacy of author Bill McKibben and the climate campaign. Bill had heard of the panels and wanted to take one of them on another road trip, this time to try to convince President Obama to put solar panels back on the White House roof as a symbolic act, showing support for the US renewable energy industry and carbon-free power. Mitchell Thomashow was appointed the college's president towards the end of the A Road Not Taken movie process, and was happy enough to oblige. Three students, Jamie Nemecek, Amanda Nelson, and Jean Altomare, were hand-picked and invited to go along with Bill on the road trip. Jason and new Sustainability Coordinator Jesse Pyles accompanied them. After a rousing send-off, they went on their merry way. They stopped along the way to talk to other student groups. The whole thing was FaceBooked and blogged to the nines, a "new media" campaign par excellence.

The second Jimmy Carter solar panel road trip was a partial success in that the students got to talk with White House staffers, and were belatedly given a promise that solar panels would one day appear on the White House. Here's an article here, and another here that appeared at the time, on Andrew Revkin's New York Times Dot Earth blog. This was before the announcement that the panels would indeed go up.

And now they have.

What does it mean that solar panels are back on the White House proper? From the point of view of energy production, not much. According to reports, the new array is probably between 2 and 4 KW in capacity. For comparison sake, the Unity House is 5KW, and the small solar power station between  our Quimby Library and Thomashow Laboratory is 37KW. The White House had a much-ignored solar array on the "cabana", an outbuilding by the pool, that is probably ten times the capacity. But that was installed under the George W. Bush administration. Because it was on an outbuilding, and not on the historic mansion proper, it never properly replaced the Carter Panels (which themselves were on the West Wing) in activist eyes.

So, I venture to suggest, the new array is purely symbolic, for two reasons: 1) there was already a solar array on the cabana, and 2) it's tiny, as solar arrays go. But symbols are important. And planning the installation, as Revkin suggested at the time, was likely fraught with difficulty, "...destined to run up against an immovable hurdle: a combination of the incredibly intertwined bureaucracy involved in doing anything to the White House and the authority of the Secret Service over anything that happens on that fabled roof."

Promises can be tough to keep. Thanks to Congress and other factors, President Obama is having trouble keeping his promises in his second term.

This one, which he made to our students, he kept.


These pictures come from Solarwakeup Blog, by Yann Brandt, via

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