George C. Szego, 88; Solar Energy Leader, 'Mr. Space Power'

George Szego helped get solar collectors installed on the White House.
George Szego helped get solar collectors installed on the White House. (Family Photo)
By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 14, 2008

George Charles Szego, 88, a chemical engineer who founded a pioneering solar technology company in Warrenton and who persuaded former President Jimmy Carter to install solar collectors on the roof of the White House, died April 23 of cardiac arrest at Kent General Hospital in Dover, Del.

Dr. Szego "has a tendency to end up on science's most popular frontiers," The Washington Post noted in 1977. A decade earlier, as America prepared to land a man on the moon, he prepared studies on internal combustion engines, fuel cells and space-age propulsion systems for the Institute for Defense Analyses. "I was known as Mr. Space Power," he told The Post.

In 1970, he founded InterTechnology/Solar Corp., hoping to capitalize on America's budding curiosity about solar energy and other alternatives to fossil fuel. The company's headquarters was a converted Safeway store in Warrenton, and by the late 1970s, ITC/Solar was competing with General Electric, Honeywell and other industry leaders for government research contracts.

"Technicians from giant energy companies often make the trip to Warrenton to sit at his feet," Forbes Magazine said in 1978.

At the time of the Forbes article, Dr. Szego's company had exclusive rights to a system for generating electrical power through osmotic pressure, a process that relies on forcing liquid through a semi-permeable membrane. The potential market, he told Forbes, could be $1 trillion.

His company manufactured plates used in solar panels and solar-powered hot water heaters. Dr. Szego also saw promise in what would come to be called biofuel, and he traveled around the world promoting the use of marginal land to grow a special breed of plant that could be used to power boilers.

In 1979, ITC/Solar received a $28,000 contract to install 32 solar thermal collectors on the roof of the West Wing of the White House, and the president inaugurated the solar hot water system June 20 of that year. Dr. Szego told Energy Design Update years later that the equipment performed well. "The collectors were cranking out hot water a mile a minute," he said.

The collectors were removed in 1986 to repair a roof leak and were never reinstalled. White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan "felt that the equipment was just a joke," Dr. Szego recalled, "and he had it taken down."

George Charles Szego was born in Budapest and was 2 when his political emigre parents brought him to the United States. After graduating from Brooklyn Technical High School, he enrolled at City College of New York.

A child of the Depression, he ran out of money after two years at CCNY and took a job in a plant in Sheridan, Wyo., that recovered non-ferrous metals. The job was supposed to be a brief hiatus from higher education, but the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor altered his plans.

After enlisting in the Army, he was sent to Camp Sibert, Ala., for chemical warfare training, but when Army brass realized he was fluent in Hungarian and German, he was transferred to the Army Intelligence Center at Camp Ritchie, Md.

Szego, then a sergeant, landed at Omaha Beach in June 1944, a few weeks after D-Day, and he fought in the Battle of the Bulge. During combat operations, he led an intelligence detachment that captured teams of Nazis impersonating GIs. Driving stolen Jeeps and wearing U.S. uniforms, the Germans were bent on assassinating high-ranking American officers.

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