A Brief History of White House Solar Panels

President Barack Obama's decision in 2010 to install White House solar panels pleased environmentalists. But he wasn't the first president to take advantage of alternative forms of energy atop the living quarters at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The first solar panels were placed on the White House more than 30 years earlier by Jimmy Carter (and removed by the very next administration.) George W. Bush installed a system on the grounds, but they weren't technically on the White House roof itself.

1979 – Carter Installs First Solar Panels

Carter Announces Camp David Accords
PhotoQuest/Contributor/Archive Photos/Getty Images

President Jimmy Carter installed 32 solar panels on the presidential mansion amid the Arab oil embargo, which had caused a national energy crisis.

The Democratic president called for a campaign to conservative energy and, to set an example to the American people, ordered the solar panels erected in 1979, according to the White House Historical Association.

Carter predicted that

“a generation from now, this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it can be a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people; harnessing the power of the Sun to enrich our lives as we move away from our crippling dependence on foreign oil.”

Their installation was seen largely as symbolic, though they did heat some water for the White House laundry and cafeteria.

1981 –Reagan Orders Solar Panels Removed

President Ronald Reagan
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President Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, and the solar panels were removed during his administration. It was clear Reagan had a completely different take on energy consumption.

Author Natalie Goldstein wrote in Global Warming:

"Reagan's political philosophy viewed the free market as the best arbiter of what was good for the country. Corporate self-interest, he felt, would steer the country in the right direction."

George Charles Szego, the engineer who persuaded Carter to install the solar panels, reportedly claimed that Reagan's Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan "felt that the equipment was just a joke, and he had it taken down." The panels were removed in 1986 when work was being done on the White House roof below the panels. 

Though some claims were made that the only reason the panels were not reinstalled was because of cost concerns, the Reagan administration's opposition to renewable energy was clear: It had drastically cut the Energy Department's funding for research and development in that area, and Reagan had called out Carter on the issue during presidential debates.

1992 – Panels Moved to Maine College

Half of the solar panels that once generated energy at the White House were installed on the roof of the cafeteria at Maine's Unity College, according to Scientific American. The panels were used to warm water in summer and winter.

The panels currently are on display in various locations around the world, including:

  • The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum
  • The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History
  • Solar Science and Technology Museum in Dezhou, China
  • Himin Solar Energy Group Co.

2003 – Bush Installs Panels on Grounds

George W. Bush

Hulton Archive /Getty Images

George W. Bush may not have restored Carter's panels to the White House roof, but he did install the first system to provide the grounds with some solar-generated electricity, on the roof of the grounds maintenance building. It was a 9-kilowatt system.

He installed two solar systems, one to heat the pool and spa water and one for other hot water.

2010 – Obama Orders Panels Reinstalled

President Obama
The U.S. Army/Flickr.com

President Barack Obama, who made environmental issues a focus of his presidency, planned to install solar panels on the White House by spring 2011, though the project wasn't begun until 2013 and completed in 2014.

He also announced he would also install a solar water heater on top of the living quarters at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Nancy Sutley, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said,

"By installing solar panels on arguably the most famous house in the country, his residence, the president is underscoring that commitment to lead and the promise and importance of renewable energy in the United States."

Administration officials said they expected the photovoltaic system would convert sunlight into 19,700 kilowatt-hours of electricity a year.

The new panels are six times more powerful than those installed by Carter in 1979 and are expected to pay for themselves after 8 years.