The White House itself once harvested the power of the sun. On June 20, 1979, the Carter administration installed 32 panels designed to harvest the sun's rays and use them to heat water.

Here is what Carter predicted at the dedication ceremony: "In the year 2000 this solar water heater behind me, which is being dedicated today, will still be here supplying cheap, efficient energy…. 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 just a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people."

For some of the solar panels it is the former that has come to pass: one resides at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, one at the Carter Library and, as of this week, one will join the collection of the Solar Science and Technology Museum in Dezhou, China. Huang Ming, chairman of Himin Solar Energy Group Co., the largest manufacturer of such solar hot water heaters in the world, accepted the donation for permanent display there on August 5. After all, companies like his in China now produce some 80 percent of the solar water heaters used in the world today.

But they are based on the same technology developed here in the U.S. and once manufactured in Warrentown, Va., by InterTechnology/Solar Corp., the company behind the Carter panels.* Roughly three meters long, one meter wide and just 10 centimeters deep, the blue-black panels absorb sunlight to heat water piped through their innards. The Carter administration set a goal of deriving 20 percent of U.S. energy needs from such renewable sources by the turn of the century. Today, the U.S. gets a mere 7 percent of its energy from renewables, the bulk of that from the massive hydroelectric dams constructed in the middle of the 20th century. Solar thermal and photovoltaic technology combined provide less than 0.1 percent.

By 1986, the Reagan administration had gutted the research and development budgets for renewable energy at the then-fledgling U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) and eliminated tax breaks for the deployment of wind turbines and solar technologies—recommitting the nation to reliance on cheap but polluting fossil fuels, often from foreign suppliers. "The Department of Energy has a multibillion-dollar budget, in excess of $10 billion," Reagan said during an election debate with Carter, justifying his opposition to the latter's energy policies. "It hasn't produced a quart of oil or a lump of coal or anything else in the line of energy."

And in 1986 the Reagan administration quietly dismantled the White House solar panel installation while resurfacing the roof. "Hey! That system is working. Why don't you keep it?" recalls mechanical engineer Fred Morse, now of Abengoa Solar, who helped install the original solar panels as director of the solar energy program during the Carter years and then watched as they were dismantled during his tenure in the same job under Reagan. "Hey! This whole [renewable] R&D program is working, why don't you keep it?"

After they came down it took a soft-spoken administrator from a small environmental college in Maine to rescue the Carter panels from being a forgotten curiosity stored in the dark corner of a vast government warehouse.

A long, strange trip
In 1991 Peter Marbach was newly minted development director at Unity College in Maine, which was facing a severe budget crisis. Marbach needed to find a way to bring attention—and hopefully donations—to the struggling college and its mission: environmental education. Leafing through a magazine, he stumbled across a picture. "There was this photograph of the solar panels, but they were all sort of disheveled and sort of tossed in a corner in this government service warehouse in Franconia, Virginia," he recalls. "It was just such a waste."

Marbach, lithe from years of mountain climbing and other outdoor pursuits, seems slow to anger, but his eyes, crinkled at the edges from years of smiling, still flash when asked to recollect what inspired his rescue mission. Yet he doesn't sound angry, so much as bemused. "It was in that instant where I was just so filled with anger and disappointment that: How could this happen?" he says. "Wouldn't it be something if I could somehow find a way to get these panels and resurrect them?"

Marbach wrote to former President Carter, who wrote back: "It would please me very much to see those panels in use again." He also enlisted the aid of Maine's former U.S. senator, William Cohen. Armed with Carter's letter and Cohen's support he contacted the General Services Administration—the independent government agency that is landlord to other government agencies and generally runs the physical stuff of government. The GSA determined Unity was eligible as an institution of higher learning to take the panels for an administrative fee of $500.

The panels weighed more than 45 kilograms each and there were 32 of them. Marbach just had a battered, blue school bus that was mostly used to carry the school soccer team to away games nearby. "The soccer coach was giving me a hard time," Marbach chuckles as he remembers. "He said, 'You realize that if you take that bus and drive it down there I have no excuse to ask the administration to get us a new bus because that will prove the bus can go that far.'"

Marbach pressed on, stripping the seats out of the bus to make room for his cargo and enduring a bumpy and loud trip down the eastern seaboard. Once in Virginia, he pulled up to the grounds of a federal warehouse he describes as much like the fictional one used to store the Ark of the Covenant in the first Indiana Jones movie, "just bigger" and stacked with unused furniture and crates of office supplies rather than mysterious archaeological artifacts. A golf cart and an attendant drove Marbach through the cavernous space, where he found the solar panels in a dim corner gathering dust instead of sunlight. Some were broken. "It just looked like there was not a lot of thought given to taking care of these things," Marbach says.

A new dawn?
There was a lot of thought given to installing the 32 solar panels in the first place, not least because the system could not alter the look or profile of the White House in any way. In fact, Morse, who first got involved with solar during the Nixon administration by being asked to assess its potential, spent years determining what could be installed. Ultimately, he had to make parts of the panels white, rather than a darker (more sunlight-absorbent) color. On June 30, 1979, the panels were unveiled, although they remained invisible from the ground.

"It was the oil shock that pretty much caused the government to take a very serious look at its domestic solar resource," recalls Abengoa's Morse, who has spent decades aiding and abetting the still fledgling solar thermal industry both in government and out. "The motivation was energy independence," a motive that remains recognizable in political rhetoric today because, as Carter himself put it, the sun cannot be embargoed, referring to the 1973–74 Arab oil embargo. "We have this big solar resource, we should use it," Morse explains.

Carter was the first president to take that idea seriously, warming the reviewing stand for his inauguration on January 20, 1977 with the sun's heat harvested by roughly 1,000 square meters of solar thermal panels, according to Morse. "President Carter saw [solar] as a really valid energy resource, and he understood it. I mean, it is a domestic resource and it is huge," Morse recalls, although he admits the inaugural solar system left some chilly. "It was the symbolism of the president wanting to bring solar energy immediately into his administration."

That symbolism became more concrete in the form of a vastly increased budget for energy technology research and development (pdf)—levels still unmatched by succeeding administrations—and tax credits for installing wind turbines or solar power that caused a first boom in renewable energy installation. In a sense alternative energy was finally getting the same government support used to develop and maintain other energy technologies, such as oil drilling or nuclear power. "It did not take long for the U.S. government to realize that energy was a great national interest and subsidize it," Morse notes.

But the real symbolism was the Carter family using hot water heated by the sun for some of their daily activities. "It was used for the cafeteria, in the laundry and other parts of the White House," Morse says.

That was symbolism that Morse suggests the Reagan administration did not support as wholeheartedly. "We had a new administration that really did not like renewables very much. I don't know if you remember those days when it was called alternative energy and there was something about 'alternative' that did not sit very well." So when the time came to resurface the roof, the panels were taken down. "It was working fine, but the decision was it was not cost-effective."

Where they ended up Morse still has no idea.

Driving the future
In fact, since 1992 16 of the 32 solar panels have been on the Unity College cafeteria roof, located just 15 minutes from the often overcast coast of Maine, warming water in summer and winter. The rest went back into storage, too big to fit in an area that is much smaller than the White House roof. Once Marbach arrived back at the college, donations flooded in to help refurbish and install them, including a gift of $150,000 worth of pre–Mobil merger Exxon stock, money from actress Glenn Close and a mention by Al Gore during a campaign stop in Maine that year.

"From around the country, we just got lots of letters, phone calls of support, and it just sort of restarted the whole conversation about alternative energy," Marbach recalls. "Imagine where we would be today if those panels were left there, if the Reagan administration had continued the funding."

Instead, it is countries such as Germany and Japan that have taken the lead as far as developing and deploying solar photovoltaics, whereas Italy and Spain now dominate solar-thermal technology, as evidenced by Morse's employment at a Spain-based solar company building power plants in Arizona. "We look[ed] for the bright red spots of high [solar] intensity [in the satellite data] and then we carefully searched for a farmer who wanted to sell his land," Morse says of the Solana concentrating solar-power plant, currently under construction southwest of Phoenix. "What is nice about a farm is that it is previously disturbed land…and we will use less than 20 percent of what the farmer used for water."

And it is China that has taken the lead when it comes to using the sun to heat hot water for daily use, installing roughly two thirds of total global capacity. "In the U.S. everyone already has a hot water system heated by natural gas, oil or electricity," explains physicist C. Julian Chen of Columbia University, who helped arrange the donation of the Carter panel to the Chinese people. "More than 80 percent of Chinese people do not have hot water; they need it. If you start from scratch, the solar water heater is cheaper."

That has made companies like Himin very successful and has cut energy use in cities such as Rizhao—attempting to become carbon neutral—by a third. And Himin's Huang helped author a 2005 Chinese law that calls for 10 percent of Chinese energy to come from renewable resources by 2020—reminiscent of the policies laid out by Carter in a speech on April 18, 1977. Already, China derives nearly 10 percent of its energy from renewable resources, primarily hydropower such as the Three Gorges Dam, although it led the world in installing wind turbines in 2009.

In the U.S. some activists have called on the Obama administration to bring solar back to the White House roof—and solar company Sungevity has offered to install 102 of its photovoltaic panels for free. "I think Barack Obama knows this problem, and he tries to correct that historical mistake," Chen says. "He appointed Steven Chu as energy secretary, and Steven Chu is a well-known supporter of renewable energy."

Of course, solar panels back atop the White House remain merely a symbolic step toward renewable energy. Already, certain buildings on the grounds of the federal landmark employ solar power, courtesy of the National Park Service and President George W. Bush. Yet, the U.S. invests only $5 billion yearly on energy research and development at present—roughly one seventh what China spent last year—and private industry has never filled the gap. And it would take producing roughly a square meter of photovoltaic panels or the mirrors for a solar thermal system every few seconds for the next 40 years to harvest one terawatt of energy from the sun by 2050—using present technologies—according to engineer Saul Griffith of Other Lab in San Francisco. The U.S. presently uses almost four terawatts of energy a year.

In fact, heating hot water alone accounts for 17 percent of U.S. energy use, according to the DoE. Carter's panels no longer cut into Unity's energy budget; the panels operations were shut down in 2005 and the college has donated three to various institutions since 2007, one at time—and plans more donations in future. "We are discussing seriously within our community what the long-term disposition of those panels will be," says Mark Tardif, a spokesman for Unity College. For the moment, most still sit on the cafeteria roof. "They are probably going to come down from that location, probably by the end of summer."

Regardless of their ultimate fate, it took the pluck and initiative of one man to rescue the Carter White House solar panels from the dustbin of political and ecological history. "There was a lot of sweat, a lot of dirt, a lot of struggle, but still just to have your hands on a piece of history and to know that, okay, these things are not going to be just a relic," Marbach recalls. "We were actually going to be able to resurrect them."

And those solar-thermal collectors also symbolize an alternative history. "We certainly didn't address the oil and energy issues going back to when Carter tried," Tardif says. "Maybe it would be different if Americans understood what actually happened. We were poised to achieve 20 percent renewables by 2000. What happened?"

*Correction (8/6/10): This sentence was edited after posting. It originally stated that the White House solar panels were manufactured by Heliodyne Solar Hot Water.

Editor's Note: David Biello is the host of a forthcoming series on PBS, titled Beyond the Light Switch. The series will explore the coming transformation of how we use and produce electricity, along with its impact on the environment, national security and the economy. He conducted the interviews for this article in conjunction with his work on that series.