September 1, 2010

Solar power traveling from Maine to Washington

Solar panel once part of Carter administration effort


UNITY -- A solar panel installed by then-President Jimmy Carter will return to the White House next week, traveling from Unity College.

click image to enlarge

Jesse Pyles, Sustainability Coordinator at Unity College, rolls a solar panel from the dark confines of the supply barn at Unity College onTuesday afternoon. The solar panel once provided power for the White House from 1979 to 1986 as part of President Carter's move towards alternative energy.

That's the plan of environmental author and activist Bill McKibben, who said Tuesday that he and a group of Unity College students would travel with the panel as part of an effort to get President Barack Obama to put solar panels on the White House.

McKibben was expected to take his announcement to a national audience during an appearance Tuesday night on "The Late Show with David Letterman."

The panels were installed on the White House roof in 1979, removed in 1986 during the Reagan administration, and were donated to Unity College in the 1990s.

"Solar panels on the White House will remind every visitor to Washington that every roof in America should have solar panels for electricity and hot water on them," McKibben said earlier in the day Tuesday. "The president's panels will do as much good as the wonderful organic garden that the first lady planted on the South Lawn."

McKibben, founder of the website, said he is "challenging" Obama and other world leaders to install solar panels by Oct. 10, the day of his group's "10/10/10 Global Work Party."

White House spokeswoman Moira Mack on Tuesday declined to comment specifically on whether the Obama would agree to put solar panels on the White House and instead outlined the president's broader efforts at "greening" the federal government. Mack pointed to an executive order Obama signed last October that sets sustainability goals for federal agencies, aiming to reduce greenhouse gas pollution, increase energy efficiency, and promote green products.

"As the largest energy consumer in the United States, he believes the federal government has a responsibility to American citizens to lead by example," Mack said. "To meet the goals President Obama set, federal agencies will not only have to become much more energy-efficient, they'll have to use more renewable energy like solar power. At the White House complex, the greening effort includes everything from shifting to green cleaning products to using more energy-efficient lighting."

At a press briefing Feb. 16 this year, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was asked whether the White House has considered installing a small wind turbine or solar panels.

"I don't want to get ahead of the architects around here," Gibbs said, according to a White House transcript. "I doubt a small wind turbine is in the offing. But I will check on -- I know there has been discussion of solar panels."

Unity's hotwater thermal solar panel, which measures more than 6-feet-tall by 2 1/2-feet-wide, is one of 41 panels. The college has 16 panels atop its cafeteria -- though they stopped working in 2003 -- and has given four panels away and loaned-out others.

McKibben said he learned of the solar panels a few years ago when he Unity College gave him an honorary degree and he gave the commencement address. McKibben is also friends with Unity College President Mitch Thomashow.

The solar panel road trip will depart from Unity College on Sept. 7 in the afternoon and make stops in Boston and New York City along the way to promote solar power. Accompanying McKibben will be Jesse Pyles, the college's sustainability coordinator, college alumnus Jason Reynolds, and seniors Jamie Nemecek, Jean Altomare and Amanda Nelson.

They'll be traveling in a 12-passenger college van running on biodiesel.

The students plan to tweet, blog and record video during the trip, according to Pyles. Reynolds was featured in a documentary, "A Road Not Taken," by Swiss filmmakers about the Carter solar panels.

"It will be an exercise in social media and event planning and execution," Pyles said. "We wanted folks who would represent the college well and really engage folks on the ground, one-on-one."

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