Those who still have high hopes for a renewable-energy economy in the United States will want to see a ceremony this week as an exercise of good will between nations—not a passing of the torch.
Unity College, in Maine, will give two solar panels to a Chinese solar-energy entrepreneur, to be placed in a museum in China. These aren’t just any old solar panels. They are part of an array of 32 panels that once produced hot water for the White House during President Jimmy Carter’s administration, but were taken down when Ronald Reagan took office.
Huang Ming, the founder and chairman of the Himin Solar Energy Group, one of the largest solar-energy companies in the world, will acquire the two panels on Thursday at Unity College. He plans to give them to the Solar Science and Technology Museum, in Dezhou, billed as China’s “Solar City.” The ceremony coincides with a new documentary by two Swiss filmmakers, called A Road Not Taken, that looks at the history of the White House solar panels and energy policy in the United States.
Mr. Ming—who started out as a petroleum geologist, but later entered the solar industry because of his concerns about oil depletion—found out about the panels from C. Julian Chen, an adjunct professor of applied physics and a senior research scientist at Columbia University, who is writing a book about solar energy. During his research into the solar business, Mr. Chen met Mr. Ming in China and told him about the solar panels on the White House and the establishment of the Department of Energy during the Carter administration.
“I told him that unfortunately the policy was discontinued and the solar water heater was dismantled, and now it’s in storage at a college,” Mr. Chen says. Mr. Ming was hooked on the story, and wanted to acquire some of the panels.
Unity, which calls itself “America’s environmental college,” acquired the White House’s 32 panels in 1991 after a college administrator read about them in a magazine and called around the government to find out what had happened to them. He learned that they had been put in a warehouse, so he drove the college’s soccer bus down to Washington to pick them up.
Sixteen of the panels were refurbished and supplied hot water to the college dining hall through the 1990s and early 2000s, while the rest went into storage. Over the years, the college has given panels to the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum, to a solar company in Vermont, and more recently to the Smithsonian Institution. Under the George W. Bush administration, the Smithsonian initially turned down the college’s offer of the solar panels, says Mark Tardif, the associate director of college communications.
“There are costs associated with kicking the can down the road with environmental issues,” he says. “We’re trying to bring this situation from the past to light again, so that people see that many of the things said now [about energy] were said then.”
College officials are trying to figure out what to do with the 27 panels left over, he says. One will travel to the White House this fall as part of a road trip organized by the writer and activist Bill McKibben. Others could be refurbished to working order again for educational purposes—although newer technologies, like the vacuum tubes manufactured by companies like Himin, more efficiently produce hot water from solar energy.
College officials said that giving two panels to Mr. Ming could help form a relationship with a powerful solar-energy company, with financial or educational benefits down the road. But Rob Constantine, vice president of college advancement, maintained that the main value of the panels was educational. “We hope that these panels continue to demonstrate historically where we have been,” he said, “and help show the gains that we have made in this technology.”