The Storied History Of White House Solar Panels, Now Back For The First Time Since The '80s

The White House announced Friday that the White House now has solar panels again, news which comes alongside an assertive political push by President Obama on energy and climate change. Activists initially lobbied the administration to make the move, and in 2010 the White House acknowledged that they indeed would do so, though it clearly took a while. According to the administration, the panels, along with other energy retrofitting measures that were taken, should pay for themselves in about eight years.

You wouldn't know it, but solar panels' presence (or lack thereof) atop the White House roof is an issue with a decades-old partisan legacy. It's been 33 years since the last time the White House was adorned with solar panels: In the midst of the dire 1979 energy crisis, which even spurred some major states to adopt odd-even gasoline rationing, President Jimmy Carter wanted to send a message of conservation to the American people, and so ordered the installation of 32 solar panels on the White House roof.

Those panels had a short-lived tenure, however. Weakened by a poor economy, international crisis, and a primary challenge to his incumbency from then-Senator Ted Kennedy, Carter lost his 1980 reelection bid to Republican challenger Ronald Reagan. And as it turned out, President Reagan was none too fond of the rooftop panels, ordering them removed in one of his earliest actions as President — though they weren't actually pulled down until roof repairs in 1986.

In 1991, they were saved from a possible eternity in storage by Peter Marbach, a development director for Unity College in Maine. Half of the panels once atop the White House, 16 out of 32, would ultimately run at Unity College for years, doing precisely what they were designed to — the Carter panels were expressly designed to heat water.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The mere existence of those Carter-era solar panels, and the manner in which they were dispatched became something of a focusing point for clean energy proponents who hoped to see Obama to follow suit. Not long before the administration agreed to the idea in 2010, an activist campaign sought to deliver one of those very panels to the White House, a symbolic gesture, but nonetheless an awareness-raising one.

For now, at least, and for the next two-and-a-half years, they should remain be safely affixed. It'll be curious to see if there ends up being another chapter in this environmental, partisan back-and-forth. After all, we could have a Republican president as early as 2016. Who's to say President Ted Cruz wouldn't just rip them down again?