Saturday, August 21, 2010

Former White House Solar Panel Goes to Chinese Museum

The fate of some former White House solar panels could be seen as an example of how differently the U.S. and China regard solar energy.

Since 1991, Unity College in Maine has owned 32 solar panels which Jimmy Carter had installed on the White House during his administration. In an unintentionally symbolic move, Ronald Reagan had them removed. Unity College was aspiring to be known as “America’s Environmental College” and acquired the panels in 1991. Some panels were used to heat water at the college’s cafeteria, but were past their useful life by 2005.

One of the historical panels was recently given to China’s Himin Solar Energy Group, the largest manufacturer of solar hot water heaters in the world. The company will display the panel at the Solar Science and Technology Museum in Dezhou, part of Himin's 800-acre "China Solar Valley" manufacturing complex. Unity gave another panel to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).

Huang Ming, chairman of Himin Solar Energy Group, and a representative of SEIA accepted the gifts at a ceremony on the Unity campus. However, the ceremony was not well-attended by representatives of the U.S. government. Unity invited a number of congressional representatives, senators, and the governor. All said no.

"Here is the largest solar energy company in Asia and maybe the world; their CEO is visiting Unity, Maine, and we're not getting responses from the politicians who are charged with bringing businesses to Maine," said Mark Tardif, of Unity College. "You would think the people involved with economic development would be flocking to this, but they're not."

The panels are not the photovoltaic kind used create electricity. They are flat plate solar collectors, which heat water by circulating it though a series of fins. The panels are old-fashioned, but flat plate collectors are still commonly used for some purposes.

Most of the 32 White House panels are in storage at Unity. One was taken apart for educational purposes. Three have been donated, one each to: the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum, the Smithsonian Institution, and NRG Systems – a Vermont wind-energy company. Another panel was loaned to Google and recently returned and one is being displayed on the Unity Campus.


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