There's a common narrative about the "solar panels" that Jimmy Carter installed on the White Hoose. The narrative is that as part of the fossil fuel industry killing renewables, Reagan removed the panels when he got into office, and we are much worse off because of that one action. In fact Reagan did make major policy decisions to deprioritize research into renewables. Perhaps the panels are a symbol of the path into ubiquitous renewable energy. I would suggest they are not, and the issue of renewable research, which I strongly support, needs to be completely separated from an objective analysis of any installation of any particular technology in any particular location.

These were not solar panels as commonly understood, but solar-thermal panels. With any alternative energy we need to look at Energy Returned on (Energy) Investment (EROI). If a fuel or energy source requires almost as much or more energy to create it as we get during its lifespan, then using it is not going to lower CO2 and help solve the problem of too much CO2. The issue of whether a particular technology makes sense in a particular situation needs to be analyzed objectively. Quite often the cost of a product or fuel, including maintenance costs, can be used as a proxy for energy investement.

Lower EROI can be ok as explained in
There are situations in which investing in energy resources with very low EROI values can make sense--for example, if most of that energy investment is front-loaded and the subsequent operating energy requirements are relatively low. This is the case with solar water heating. It takes a lot of energy to produce copper absorber plates, piping, and other solar collector components--but most of those energy inputs are "upstream" (that is, they have already been expended by the time your solar water heating system is hooked up).
A lot of the usefulness depends on the location. Solar heating of hot water has decades of popularity and use in California, Florida, Israel, and other mild locations. We also need to look at how the warmed water is used. Is warmed water, mostly in summer, universally useful? Unfortunately, no. We can glean that conclusion from the results at Unity College, near the coast of Maine, which is not a good location.

A Scientific American article starts with:
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."

The SciAm article laments that some, in fact, all, of the panels are now in museums or storage as Carter "feared". The article explains that the publicity director of Unity College in Maine wrote to Carter in 1991 who wrote back "It would please me very much to see those panels in use again." From the SciAm article:
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."

This document states exactly where we would be:
The President has established a goal that would require the installation of at million solar water heaters by 1985 and 20 million water heating systems by the year 2000
We would be poorer and have 10's of millions of solar-thermal panels in warehouses or more likely in landfills. Or we would need a lot more very large museums. The panels were only marginally cost-effective on the White House (at $28,000 plus maintenance compared to relatively cheap gas water heating) and certainly were not cost-effective in Maine.

In fact omitting any EROI analysis is a major deficiency in the Sci Am article, especially considering the apparent short lifespan. Thermal panels are not economical in Maine or even on the White House roof due to its gas water heating. Even the solar thermal greenhouse at Unity College is now covered over since it provides only unwanted heat in the summer and very likely net negative heat in the winter. The claim that the panels were too big to fit the roof in Maine is an outright falsehood. Also claiming they work in winter.

Solar thermal water heating is much like that attached greenhouse, shown in the pictures below, now missing or covered. It provides plenty of heat in the summer when you don't need as much, and not much (or zero for these water-filled panels) in the winter when you need more heat. It may be untrue that panels were removed from the White House for no reason. They were removed during roof repair in 1986 and not reinstalled possibly because they were not cost-effective. From
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.
Did it really take more than $150,000 to refurbish "perfectly good, working" panels and operate them from 1992-2005? From (SOLAR ENERGY IS BACK AT THE WHITE HOUSE):
Special Editor's Note from the EcoMall: In 1980, the Reagan administration removed perfectly good, working solar thermal panels from the White House (these same solar collectors are still working at Unity College in Unity, Maine). The EcoMall spearheaded the Proposal to Solarize the White House, forming "The Solar Campaign" with other solar energy advocates, and posted an alert at our site asking our visitors to e-mail The White House urging them to use renewable energy technologies on the White House grounds. We are happy to report that 23 years after the previous solar panels were removed, two solar thermal systems and a 9 kW photovoltaic (PV) solar electricity system have returned to the White House.

Since September 2002, a grid of 167 solar panels on the roof of a maintenance shed has been delivering electricity to the White House grounds. Another solar installation has been helping to provide hot water. Yet another has been heating the water in the presidential pool.

The White House and the National Park Service, which oversee the projects, could not say how much power the systems are generating -- or how much money they are saving the public. But the Park Service and the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade association, agreed the projects are small.

With Washington's climate and the pitch of the building roofs considered less than ideal, the output of any system would be limited, said one of the project's managers.

"I think the symbolic nature of this exceeds the actual kilowatts produced," said SEIA spokesman Michael Paranzino.
In other words, even some current panels may have negative EROI. The WH roof is flat and the panels were angled at about 45 degrees. That means the backs of the panels were completely exposed to cold and therefore much less effective in cold but nonfreezing weather. The panels were removed from the WH in 1986 during roof repair, left in storage until 1991, refurbished and installed at Unity in 1992 and taken out of service in 2005. That's three decades of service at Unity according to Bill McKibben:

(click to enlarge photo)
The story is painful even to consider. This panel went up on the White House roof in 1979, with then-president Jimmy Carter (in a wide tie, and with a bushy haircut) promising that it would still be there in the year 2000, producing hot water from the sun for whoever was then president. In fact, it didn’t make it through the next decade — it came down in the Reagan years, a symbol of our decision to turn away from the idea of limits and veer sharply down the path we’ve trod ever since.

But not everyone went along. Frugal folks at Unity College in Maine salvaged the panels, and put them up on the cafeteria, where they continued to produce hot water for the next three decades.
From the New York Times June 21, 1979:
He stood in front of four large panels, called collectors, fitted with rods that circulate sun‐heated water through connecting pipes to a storage tank, much as a normal heater does. If the collectors do not bring the water up to tap temperatures, a regular heater turns on. The system will be used mostly for the White House staff mess.

Mr. Carter said the system, which cost $28,000 to install, would pay for itself in seven to 10 years.
Let's assume the panels operating in Maine had 50% solar energy collection efficiency, with the rest of the system at 50% efficiency with pumping and cooling losses. For DC see (1). The insolation at Washington DC is 4.5 kWh per square meter per day. Assume the system can be run for 7 months before being drained for freezing temperatures.

Annual energy collection for Washington, D.C.:
7 months * 30.5 days * 4.5kWh/day/m2 * 300 square meters * 0.31 = 89,350 kWh
From 1979 to 1986 the average price of electricity was 7 cents / kWh.

After being installed in Maine the annual energy collection is:
5 months * 30.5 days * 4.2kWh/day/m2 * 150 square meters * 0.25 = 24,000 kWh
From 1992 to 2005 the average price of electricity was 8.5 cents / kWh.

(1): a 1980 analysis shows system effciencies in Washington DC of 0.26 to 0.36
Location Energy saved annually Annual savings YRS Total savings Cost of system
Wash. DC 89,350 kWh $6,254 7 $43,781 $28,000+
Maine 24,000 kWh $2,100 13 $27,000 $150,000+
Note that the savings in the table above assume resistive electric water heating. Natural gas water heating at the White House in 1980 was three times cheaper, see (1) above for costs. Gas was 3.5x cheaper but gas was only 85% efficient versus 100% for electric hot water.

If the $28k is accurate the panels could have positive EROI with less than five years to return the energy costs of electrical resistive heat with energy from the sun. But the Maine numbers don't look as good. Also we would need to know why the panels needed refurbshing after just 7 years on the WH roof and 6 years in a warehouse. Were they damaged? Specifically, we need to know how much energy was required to restore and maintain them for their lifespan. Finally do they only operate for 20 years? That seems too short.

Symbolism is not going to save the world from too much CO2. Misrepresenting what the panels what the panels did and what they can do is not helpful. They did not work in the winter for example. They did not work for three decades in Maine. I conclude they were essentially useless in Maine with negative EROI. Reducing our fossil use is good. But pretending we are reducing is not.


"too big to fit in an area that is much smaller than the White House roof"
(click to enlarge)
Currently: panels have been removed. Roof faces ESE.

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