On this very day, June 20th, 33 years ago, President Jimmy Carter installed solar panels on the White House roof. Seven years after that, Ronald Reagan took them down.
It was the end of 70s, a decade wracked with stagnant economic growth and a pair of debilitating oil price spikes—the second, caused by the Iranian revolution, actually occurred in 1979. The nation had seen firsthand the danger of relying too heavily on oil, and ordinary folks were sick of being besieged by high gas prices. So Jimmy Carter made what seemed to be a reasonable move: He started organizing a framework by which to wean us off the black stuff.
Carter advocated alternative energy sources (yes, yes, despite the fact that wind and solar weren’t and aren’t immediate replacements for oil), extolled the virtues of energy efficiency, and famously suggested that we all try to use less power. (He also, it should be noted, wanted more coal too, though the dangers it posed to public health and the climate weren’t yet understood). He wore a sweater around the White House in the winter instead of cranking up the thermostat. He was, in many ways, ahead of his time—as we all know now, we’d all be a hell of a lot better off if we’d started the transition away from oil and pouring serious investment into alternative power sources in Carter’s time, as opposed to, you know, never getting around to it ever.
President Carter showing off the goods.
In fact, it was just five days before he installed the solar panels that he delivered his most famous (and misunderstood) speech. You know, the “malaise” one, where he outlined the very real social and economic ills plaguing the nation. It was actually entitled “Crisis of Confidence,” and he never actually used the words “malaise” once, but the media pegged that as the keyword regardless.
You know the rest. With presidential elections a year out, Reagan pounced. Propelled by jingoistic bravado, he insisted that America was doing just fine, thanks, and take it from me, I look like a cowboy.
The History Channel details what happened to the solar array after Reagan won the highest office in the land:
In 1986, President Reagan had the solar panels removed and put into a federal storage facility in Virginia, stating that the energy crisis that had affected both foreign and domestic policy during Carter’s term would not be a factor during his own. Both the environmental organization Greenpeace and a college in Maine asked to have the solar panels after they were taken down. As an October 2004 Associated Press article reported, Greenpeace’s request for the panels, which they wanted to use in a homeless shelter, was ultimately rejected, and in 1992, the conservation-minded Unity College of Maine installed them to use for the generation of hot water in the student dining hall. Former President Carter sent a congratulatory note to the college saying he was glad the panels would be of some use.
By 2004, the solar panels had worn out. Unity College kept one of the panels for “historical significance,” donated another panel to the Smithsonian Institute and offered the rest for sale.
And so, what should have been an icon of energy independence and American innovation became a sad relic tucked away on some museum shelf. Alas. As a postscript, I should add that there’s been a resurgence of interest in the idea of installing solar panels on the White House—the climate advocacy group 350.org waged a campaign with some other activist groups to try to get Obama to reinstall a new array. Obama said he would do it by 2011, but the deadline came and went, with no adjustments made to the closely-watched roof.
Same as it ever was, no?