White House Solar Panel Acquired by Smithsonian

August 17, 2009
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History recently accepted a solar panel that was once installed on the White House. The panel was donated by Unity College in Unity, Maine, during a ceremony July 21.

“Solar America,” an initiative undertaken by President Jimmy Carter’s administration, was established three decades ago. On June 30, 1979, 32 solar panels were installed on the roof of the White House above the Oval Office to heat water in the staff kitchen, which was often used by President Carter. The panels were removed in 1986 during the Reagan Presidency and obtained by Unity College in 1991. Sixteen were refurbished and installed atop the college cafeteria. They heated water until 2005 when they reached their maximum lifespan. One of those panels was donated to the museum’s collection in the division of politics and reform. Another of the panels was donated to the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum in Atlanta.

“The White House solar panel is evidence of an American President leading by example to promote his administration’s agenda,” said Harry Rubenstein, chair of the division of politics and reform. “It displays how President Carter reinforced his policies through a personal gesture taking place in his own home.”

Unity College is a small private college in rural Maine that provides students with a liberal arts education that emphasizes the environment and natural resources. “The panels are a teaching aid to explore how decisions shape the future,” said Unity College President Mitchell Thomashow. “What might have happened if America stayed on the energy path begun by former President Carter? We will never know, but we should be aware of this little-known aspect of American history.” The installation of the solar panels on the White House was a symbolic act that showed the direction the Carter administration would take regarding energy sources in America. The solar panel is the museum’s most recent addition to its White House collection, which dates to the early 17th century.

The National Museum of American History collects, preserves and displays American heritage in the areas of social, political, cultural, scientific and military history. The museum shines new light on American history after having been dramatically transformed by a two-year renovation. To learn more about the museum, visit http://americanhistory.si.edu. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000, (202) 633-5285 (TTY).