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A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time.

As solar power booms in the US, a key part of its history lies at Unity College

Unity 2.jpg
Murray Carpenter
Maine Public
Unity College professor Doug Fox with a solar panel that once sat atop the White House, during the Carter Administration.

Displayed on a pedestal on the campus of Unity College in Waldo County, there's a glass-covered gray rectangle, about the size of a picnic table. Unity College natural resources professor Doug Fox says it's an important part of history.

“This is a solar panel that Jimmy Carter installed on the White House," Fox says. "Unity College has a couple of dozen of these and this is the one that we have on display here.”

Solar power is experiencing an unprecedented boom in the U.S. This relic of its origins, not far from what will be the largest solar project in Maine, illustrates how American solar energy has evolved by fits and starts, over decades.

This story is part of our series "Climate Driven: A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time."

Deep Dive Climate Driven

If the solar panel could talk, it would tell a story of grand ambition. President Jimmy Carter unveiled the 32 solar panels on June 20, 1979, not to fight climate change, but to reduce dependence on Middle Eastern oil during the energy crisis.

“I think all of us working together, can assure the success of what is being initiated this afternoon, a national program supported and enjoyed by all Americans, to make solar energy a clean, sure, economical, exciting part of Americans’ lives,” Carter said at a press conference, on that bright June day.

Carter also proposed a $100 million solar energy bank as a step toward a goal of generating 20% of America’s energy from renewable sources by the year 2000. But the vision was dimmed by Carter's successor, President Ronald Reagan, who removed the panels during a White House renovation.

A decade later, a team from Unity College pulled the seats out of an old school bus, drove to DC, and rescued the panels from obscurity in a government warehouse. They installed 16 of them on a roof at the college, to heat water for the dining hall.

The panels were so well-known in solar circles that the Chinese entrepreneur Huang Ming flew to Unity in 2010 to retrieve one to be the centerpiece of a museum in his massive development known as the Solar Valley. As he formally accepted the panel, Huang noted that Americans had pioneered the development of solar energy, but had turned away from it.

Jimmy Carter holds a press conference on the West Wing roof in 1979 to announce his alternative energy initiative; the solar panels installed on the roof heated water for the Navy Mess
Unity, Huang Ming.jpg
Murray Carpenter
Maine Public
A file photo from when Chinese entrepreneur Huang Ming flew to Unity in 2010 to retrieve a solar panel to be the centerpiece of a museum in his massive development known as the Solar Valley.

“We have learned a lot from you, from your technology, your books, from your scholars," he said. "But after energy crisis, in the Reagan presidency, you throw away everything.”

Other panels went to the Carter Center in Georgia, and to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

And now, more than 40 years after Carter dedicated the solar heaters, solar power is finally coming into its own again.

Becca Jones-Albertus, Director of the Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Office, says, “The cost of solar technology has been falling dramatically over the past about fifteen years, and we’ve been installing more and more solar, as a result, in the U.S.”

She says one big change since the Carter era is the move away from the solar thermal panels that provide heat, and toward the photovoltaic panels that now produce about 4% of the nation's electricity.

“And with the passage of the incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act, we’re expecting that that can really take off over the next 10 years, and solar could be as much as 40% of our electricity supply by 2035," Jones-Albertus says. "So it’s an incredibly exciting time where we’ll see solar go from a small contributor of our electricity supply to potentially one of the largest shares of our electricity supply.”

And evidence of that momentum is visible just a few miles from Unity College, where Maine’s largest solar farm is now under construction.

James Studiale is the construction manager of the solar farm Longroad Energy is building on 920 acres of cleared forestland in Unity Township. He says the 350,000 solar panels will have a capacity of 150 megawatts, enough to serve 30,000 Maine households.

“And I’d say in six months from now it will look like an ocean of bluish black solar panels," he says, "which will be tracking and following the sun from morning to night.”

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Murray Carpenter
Maine Public
Chad Allen and James Studiale of Longroad Energy at the site of what will be Maine's largest solar farm, with 150 megawatts of capacity. It's in Unity Township, just a few miles from Unity College.

Perhaps this is the scale of solar power that President Carter envisioned on that long-ago day, when he installed 32 panels on the roof of the White House back in 1979.

"A generation from now, this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken," Carter said, "or it can be just a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people."

As it turned out, says Unity professor Doug Fox, they did become museum pieces.

“But that story is not as pessimistic as it sounds," he says. "They are being used as museum pieces in ways that really do continue to foster the idea of solar.”

Unity, panel2.jpg
Murray Carpenter
Maine Public
A placard next to the historic solar panel on display at Unity College.

Murray Carpenter is Maine Public’s climate reporter, covering climate change and other environmental news.