Jimmy Carter’s White House solar panels: Was he our first ‘green’ president?

Back in the late 1970s, the White House was harvesting the power of the sun via solar panels. The country was also deep in the throes of global energy and inflation crises — sound familiar?

Though the crises of the 1970s were arguably more shocking to the American public than today’s — as anyone who waited in longs lines in their giant sedan to fill up at a gas station might recall — they had similarities to the current climate of high food prices and oil and gas
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uncertainty brought on in part by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Although views have changed somewhat with the benefit of hindsight, the energy and inflation crisis was thought to have cost Carter a second term in office.

The solar panels installed on the White House in the 1970s may be long gone, but the current occupant, President Joe Biden, like Carter a Democrat, has also leveraged the notion of U.S.-made protection from foreign energy reliance to push energy and climate-change policy. In what some have deemed the largest climate-change-focused legislation ever, Biden used last year’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) to push for at-scale solar, wind
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nuclear, carbon capture and other alternatives to fossil fuels.

Read: Carbon capture, nuclear and hydrogen feature in most net-zero emissions plans and need greater investment: report

‘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 just a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people.’


— President Jimmy Carter, in 1979

The IRA includes rebates for solar installations for homes and businesses. (You can read up on the federal program, including rebate amounts, on the Department of Energy’s EnergyStar site.)

Read: Want a rebate to upgrade home electric or swap to solar? There’s good news and bad news.

The consumer-level incentives are intended to push the U.S. further along a path to net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. Emissions created when fossil fuels are burned are blamed for rising temperatures, acidifying oceans, eroding coastlines and increasingly severe drought, heat and flooding. Biden’s political foes argue that generating more domestic oil and gas is the key not only to keeping down energy costs but to cutting reliance on Russian and Middle Eastern production, thereby boosting security at the same time.

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But Carter intended to push the U.S. along this path long before 2015’s pivotal Paris Climate Accord and a subsequent nearly universal global pledge to sharply reduce emissions.

A bipartisan past: Nixon’s EPA and Carter’s solar push

On installation day in 1979, Carter made this prediction, according to an article in Scientific American: “In the year 2000, this solar water heater behind me, which is being dedicated today, will still be here supplying cheap, efficient energy. … 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 just a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people.”

Carter, who at 98 is the longest-lived American president, has had a recent series of short hospital stays, and over the weekend, the Carter Center said in a statement that he has now “decided to spend his remaining time at home with his family and receive hospice care instead of additional medical intervention.”

Carter wasn’t the first president to worry about the environment — or at least to devote a degree of attention to the issue.

In the early 1970s, as a result of heightened public concerns about deteriorating air quality in cities, natural areas littered with garbage, and urban water supplies contaminated with dangerous impurities, President Richard Nixon, a Republican, presented the House and Senate with a groundbreaking 37-point message on the environment. 

Nixon, who can be credited with creating the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), later signed the clean air and clean water acts into law.

So what happened to Carter’s White House solar panels?

During the 1980s, Ronald Reagan, who beat Carter in the 1980 election and served two terms as president, gutted the research and development budgets for renewable energy at the then-fledgling separate Department of Energy (DOE) and eliminated tax breaks for the installation of wind turbines and solar technologies.

Reagan, a Republican, recommitted the U.S. to relying on fossil fuels, often from foreign suppliers, because the competition would presumably keep costs down.

“The Department of Energy has a multibillion-dollar budget, in excess of $10 billion,” Reagan said during a 1979 debate with Carter, justifying his opposition to the latter’s energy policies. “It hasn’t produced a quart of oil
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or a lump of coal or anything else in the line of energy.”

By 1986, the Reagan administration had also dismantled the White House solar panel installation while resurfacing the roof.

The removal didn’t go entirely unnoticed, however.

“Hey! That system is working. Why don’t you keep it?” mechanical engineer Fred Morse recalled thinking, according to the Scientific American article. Morse, now of Abengoa Solar, had helped install the panels as director of the solar energy program during the Carter years and then watched as they were dismantled during his tenure in the same job under Reagan.

“[Carter’s] motivation was energy independence,” Morse told the publication.

As a policy option, solar remains one solution in areas that get enough sun, particularly as the technology has grown more cost-competitive.

As Carter once said, referring to the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo, the sun cannot be embargoed.

One of Carter’s solar panels now resides at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, one is at the Carter Library, and about a decade ago, one joined the collection of the Solar Science and Technology Museum in Dezhou, China. In China, which competes with the U.S. in the race toward renewable energy, solar-powered hot-water heaters are common.

During the George W. Bush administration, the National Park Service installed a 9-kilowatt solar array on a maintenance facility at the White House, but it attracted very little media coverage. During the eight years of the Bush administration, two solar thermal systems were also installed — one to heat the pool and spa and the other to provide hot water for the property.  

President Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan, advanced in 2013, outlined his commitment to using executive orders to cut power-plant emissions and lower the federal government’s carbon footprint. Although some of the initiatives were implemented, the Trump administration rolled back most features of the 2013 bill.

The Obama Administration’s own White House solar installation was completed in 2013. The panels, inverter and components were American-made and the installation was about the size of an average home solar system in the United States at the time.

A presidency reconsidered?

Carter’s environmental activism will be debated as his long life is recalled. He regulated natural gas, which has come to power much of the U.S. electrical grid in recent decades. Although much cleaner than coal, natural gas is still a polluting source of energy.

He “inaugurated the nation’s investment in research on solar energy and was one of the first presidents to warn us about the dangers of climate change,” Carter biographer Kai Bird wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times. “He rammed through the Alaska Land Act, tripling the size of the nation’s protected wilderness areas.”

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Carter ‘inaugurated the nation’s investment in research on solar energy and was one of the first presidents to warn us about the dangers of climate change.’


— Biographer Kai Bird

At a service this weekend at Carter’s church in Plains, Ga., his niece Kim Fuller shared her uncle’s philosophy, one that reflects his early understanding about the multigenerational aspect of working to avert climate change and of service in general.

“I have one life and one chance to make it count for something. I’m free to choose that something,” Fuller said, quoting Carter. “My faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I can, whenever I can, for as long as I can.”

Fuller noted that now it may be time for Carter to pass the baton. “Who picks it up, I have no clue,” she said. “I don’t know. Because this baton’s going to be a really big one.”

Read: Fond remembrances of Jimmy Carter after former president enters hospice

The Associated Press contributed.

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