Jimmy Carter’s Solar Panels: A Lost History That Haunts Today

The glass, aluminum, and stainless steel panels reclined at low angles and basked in the sun as the men in suits and ties, flanked by reporters, took to the West Wing roof to look at what they thought was the future. That day, June 20, 1979, was clear enough for the sun to bring out a bright reflection on the panels, and for shadows of those on the roof to be drawn dark and tight around them.

For President Jimmy Carter, it had been nearly three years of tough fighting for clean energy. After a long rollout of green tax credits, the creation of a nascent Energy Department, and a pledge to conduct the “moral equivalent of war” (at the time, spoofed by critics as “MEOW”) against an energy crisis, Carter had built up scars. And there would be more to come. He had had battles with Congress and with his political enemies over green issues. But he had some victories, too, and this day brought one more, a small moment of symbolism.

White House Solar Panels 1979
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Solar panels, some 32 of them, were on the roof of the White House. The set was just right – the sun had come out for the press as though for a stage call. Tape rolled, the cameras snapped.

Self-conscious about his own idealism, or perhaps just realistic, the President gave voice to his doubts about the panels: “A generation from now, this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it can be a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people.”

The point of all this was simple, Carter said. America was to harness “the power of the sun to enrich our lives as we move away from our crippling dependence on foreign oil.”

Carter was a person of simplicity, of conservation; he was also sort of an oddball, a hybrid, an anti-political Christian proto-green who had donned a cardigan sweater, lowered the White House thermostat, and declared “Sun Day” on May 3, 1978.

A year later he had his panels.

In the stillness of that roof-top scene – captured now in celluloid for history – Carter reaches out both hands, straight out, palms to the ground, as if to feel the heat. Trees ring the background. The panels reflect the image of his outstretched arm. An election defeat, a grinding stagflation, a mad Ayatollah, and a bungled hostage crisis were all soon to end his political future. But in that moment he was a creator.

The panels were primitive but serviceable. They heated water. They cost about $28,000 to install. According to the person who convinced Carter to put up the panels, George Szego, who died this year at 88, they were models of industry. They cranked out hot water “a mile a minute,” he said.

Carter, in his State of the Union Address the year the panels were installed, presented an ambitious plan to put America on a clean energy path: 20 percent of energy from renewable sources by 2000. Part of his idea was to go far beyond simple hot water solar collectors and direct government research funds towards the development of photovoltaic cells, the kind that could put energy into the grid.

That’s the kind of cell that we are still trying to perfect now, in 2008, some 30 years later, when we still get only 6 or 7 percent of our energy from renewables.

The scramble is on again across the country to renew Carter’s old efforts, as venture capital pours into solar and wind energy. About $5.2 billion of North American venture capital poured into carbon-reducing and environment-friendly technologies in 2007, according to the industry-affiliated Cleantech Group.

But if it all feels we are inventing something that should have already been invented, maybe that’s because, well, it should have been. And maybe it’s worth tracing the history of Carter’s panels – the idea and the reality – where they went, how they got lost.

Reagan: Tear Down These Panels

The 1979 panels survived for a surprising seven years, well into the age of Ronald Reagan – well into the age of what seemed a waning energy crisis, of deregulation, and of a final showdown with a dying “evil empire.” The panels became objects of increasing indifference. And so did the tax credits and research funds that had provided the real meat of Carter’s energy initiatives.

President Reagan had declared government the problem, not the solution. That meant no energy credits. That also meant no solar panels. Ronald Reagan helped tear down the Berlin Wall, and he also helped tear down the White House’s solar panels.

Seven years after the West Wing roof party, in 1986, the symbolic solar collectors met with “roof repairs,” and they were never re-installed. They were put in a warehouse in Virginia and forgotten. There must have been a little hue and cry at the time – enough to force a statement from the White House media shop.

Reagan press secretary Dale Petroskey told the Associated Press: “Putting them back up would be very unwise, based on cost.” That said, the exact motives for the removal of the panels nonetheless remain murky. A top Reagan official “felt that the equipment was just a joke,” the panel-installer Szego recalled to The Washington Post, “and he had it taken down.”

There is no easy way to get the truth – whether it was part of an anti-environment, anti-regulation, anti-Carter policy, or just prudent home repairs by Reagan’s groundskeepers as they fixed a roof leak. A few rumors assuming the worst about Reagan’s motives of course float on the Internet. No big deal. A scan of dozens of biographies and histories of the Reagan era sheds little light.

Edwin Meese, Reagan’s Attorney General and long-time confidant and adviser, is said to have given the thumbs-down to the panels, insisting they were not befitting of a superpower. Maybe that’s apocryphal, too. Meese’s recent energy-related activities? This year, he has issued memos from a conservative think tank to the Bush White House, urging the Bush EPA to stall on climate change regulation, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Curiously – and this may say it all – the Reagan administration also allowed Carter’s financial incentives promoting renewables to expire around the time that the panels were removed. Tax credits established in 1977 for homeowners installing solar water heaters ended December 31, 1985, just months before the White House roof coup d’├ętat.

Much of America’s fledgling solar industry, started under Carter, went dark.

A Long Strange Solar Trip

Meanwhile, the 32 solar panels had been collecting dust in Virginia. They spent five years there. Finally, an administrator at Unity College, a then down-at-heel Maine school looking for publicity, stripped out the seats from a tattered school bus, drove down I-95, and took the panels from the government warehouse back to Maine.

There, in the hinterlands, U.S. energy policy was postponed, exactly 559 miles from relevance – the distance between 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and the Unity campus at 90 Quaker Hill Road.

The panels remained far from Washington under later presidencies, too, even under the Bill Clinton/Al Gore self-proclaimed “green” one. Clinton had come into office with some promises to address our energy dependence problem. But the 1990s will not be remembered as a time of clean energy renewal.

“[D]uring his eight years in office – aside from a failed effort to pass a carbon tax in 1993 – Clinton pretty much ignored the energy business,” writes energy journalist Robert Bryce in his new book, Gusher of Lies.

More than a dozen Carter solar panels now remain over Unity’s cafeteria, all of them defunct. Others are also stowed in a garage, trapped in what must be the ninth concentric circle of green hell. In 2006, one panel made it down to the Carter Library in Atlanta, delivered there, fittingly, by two students in a vegetable oil-powered vehicle.

The Carter library gladly took them, perhaps sensing the deepening “I-told-you-so” irony of our moment. (Between 1973 and 2003, for example, America’s oil importing had gone up sharply, from 35 to 60 percent of its total oil.)

Library director Jay Hakes said in a 2007 statement that “the current problems of dependency on unreliable sources of oil and climate change would probably be much less than they are today” had the panels and their symbolic power been taken more seriously.

The Path To Solar Hell

Mick Womersley, an environmental studies professor at Unity, is now the de facto steward of the panels. He said in a recent interview that he’s trying his best to maintain an important piece of history – a tangible reminder of the frontier days of solar power in the 1970s, and the broken promise thereafter.

Womersley actually admits to banging one around and cracking it – part of an experiment, he said. But at least he’s trying to keep them alive and relevant, and pass their lessons on to students.

“I should go to solar hell for breaking a Jimmy Carter solar panel,” Womersley said.

The reality, though, is that America allowed the Jimmy Carter solar panels – and all they represent – to be broken. And the result is not only the continued dependence on foreign oil that Carter and others since him have sought in vain to avoid, but a lack of competitiveness in the basic business of capitalism and green innovation, what many now expect is the new frontier in global growth. Because of good long-term subsidies, Japan and Germany now command 70 percent of the world’s solar energy market, according to the book Earth: The Sequel, co-authored by Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund. China and Israel are also leading the way in terms of widespread use of solar hot water.

Which is to say, maybe Womersley’s idea of there being a “solar hell” is worth considering, especially as oil prices fluctuate wildly and energy crisis circa 2008 looks very much like a 70s show rerun. The solar panels indeed became a “museum piece,” and right now the museum is looking suspiciously like our own country.

John Wihbey

A regular contributor to The Yale Forum, John Wihbey is an editor and researcher at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. (E-mail: johnwihbey@gmail.com, Twitter: @wihbey)
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7 Responses to Jimmy Carter’s Solar Panels: A Lost History That Haunts Today

  1. BP says:

    This is one of the best articles I have read on this subject. Thank You

  2. John Wihbey says:

    BP, thanks for the high compliment. I really appreciate your feedback!

  3. Solar Panels says:

    John this is really a good article.

  4. Sweet says:

    Nice. It was very interesting to hear about this. Well written. Hoping for a more enlightened future!

  5. Scott says:

    Whatever happened to the conservative ideal of conservation?

  6. Kate Walsh says:

    Since when were the ‘conservatives’ ever concerned about conservation? I’m genuinely interested; this is not a smart-alec comment. It seems to me that every ‘conservative’ group exploited the environment, until Carnegie got a conscience, and began reversing the damages he had created. Thanks.

  7. Greg says:

    The company I worked for- Olin Corporation in East Alton, IL converted from making aluminum refrigerator cooling panels to panels for these solar water heaters when President Carter started the incentive program. When Reagan ended the incentive program, the sales fell, the company discontinued production and sold off the equipment to China, putting people out of work. So much for that. There are quite a few homes in our area that still have them on the roofs as they gave employees a special discount as well. Carter was ahead of his time. Of course most of us know that.