UNITY, Maine — A vintage solar panel on display Thursday at the Unity College Centre for the Performing Arts has had a long, strange journey that began in 1979 at the White House and soon will end at the Solar Science and Technology Museum in China’s Solar Valley.
Huang Ming, the chairman of Himin Solar Energy Group and one of the world’s foremost alternative energy entrepreneurs, spoke about his vision for solar energy to a crowd of Unity College officials and media representatives after he received the gift of the panel, which will be on prominent display in the museum.
“This kind of gift means a lot, not only to Chinese people, but also to American people and maybe the whole world,” Ming said. “Cooperation will allow us to face the challenges of global warming and the energy crisis.”
He proposed that Unity College and Chinese schools create a scholarship exchange program to share knowledge. He also offered to send a third-generation, modern solar heating system to the White House.
“I’m eager to have an opportunity to help the White House,” Ming said. “America’s dream, China’s dream — on the roof, they’re the same, I think.”
The solar panel was one of 41 that President Jimmy Carter installed to heat water for the White House dining room during the 1979 oil crisis.
“A generation from now, this solar heater could either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken,” Carter said at the time in a rooftop press conference. “Or it can be just a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people.”
But the panels were removed for roof repairs in 1986 during the Reagan administration and never replaced, according to college officials.
After the solar panels spent a few years in government storage, Unity College’s then-development director read about them in 1991 and waged a campaign to bring them out of retirement and into the sunshine.
“We want to lead by example,” Peter Marbach told a Bangor Daily News reporter in 1992 of his efforts.
The panels were refurbished with the financial help of many, including actress Glenn Close, and 16 were installed on the roof of the Unity College cafeteria in 1991. They turned the sun’s rays into heat until 2003, when the panels reached the end of their functional life, said college spokesman Mark Tardif.
Now, they are a part of history, said Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, who also spoke at the gift presentation.
“Today is a bridge — it’s a bridge from the past of the Carter administration to today’s economy,” he said. “It connects the old energy economy to the new energy economy.”
Although Unity College had invited President Carter, Gov. John Baldacci and the members of Maine’s congressional delegation to the event, none came, though all but the former president and Rep. Mike Michaud sent letters.
Ming, whose net worth was estimated at more than $317 million in 2009 by London’s Sunday Times, said that his company, and country, are treating the “new energy economy” as a necessity and not a curiosity. More than 200 million people in China have used his company’s solar heaters, he said, and Himin Solar Energy Group accounts for 76 percent of the solar thermal market worldwide.
In a photo presentation, he showed an aerial picture of a Chinese city, each rooftop dotted with solar panels.
In Dezhou in Shandong Province, Ming and his colleagues have constructed a massive solar valley, a showcase of environmentally conscious and energy-efficient architecture.
Saving energy is the responsibility of the “common people” and a business opportunity, too, he said.
“If you wake up yourselves from sleeping, I think you’ll also be the green giant of the world,” Ming said of America.