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Jimmy Carter, Solar Power Pioneer

president jimmy carter solar power pioneer

A funny thing happened in the 1970s: the Energy Crisis. Triggered by international tensions in the Middle East, oil producing countries formed an embargo called "Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC)," which restricted oil export and sent prices soaring. This left the United States, which had only recently become dependent on foreign oil, plunged into a recession.

And all of the sudden, Energy Conservation was a topic on every news channel. As opposed to the more politically polarized climate regarding energy science now, in the 1970s the concept of energy conservation enjoyed broad bipartisan support. The motivation was more about remaining nationally solvent than heading off climate catastrophe, but the end goal was the same.

Your present author, a Generation-X kid at the time, recalls seeing this comic handed out in schools:


...and that was my introduction to climate and energy science. While the science wasn't quite caught up at the time, the comic did go to lengths explaining the energy market - with a side helping of "peak oil" theory - and explored all the renewable energy options. This comic was just one facet of the grassroots support we had for energy conservation in the 1970s. The first Earth Day, on April 22nd, was held in 1970, which means we've had the tradition for over half a century now.


The White House Solar Panels

From this media climate spawned the legend of the White House's solar panel install. Then-president Jimmy Carter made the bold move to install rooftop solar panels for the White House in 1979. He was quite direct in stating his intent:

> "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; harnessing the power of the sun to enrich our lives as we move away from our crippling dependence on foreign oil."

There it is again, no mention of an overheating planet, we just want to cut that oil bill. This was just a solar heater, by the way, for providing hot water throughout the building. It was not a full-fledged solar power panel install. This was, after all, 1979, when science had a lot of catching up to do to make solar panels a commonly affordable proposition.

It is also true that Ronald Reagan, the next president after Jimmy Carter, removed the solar panels, but this was not so much a political move as a practical one. The White House roof had resurfacing and the panels were moved during maintenance, then were not replaced when it was decided that they weren't all that efficient in the first place.

Years later, a journalist tracked down the location of the stored panels in the 1990s. The panels were rescued from obscurity. Today some of them are installed at Unity College in Maine as part of their solar array, and some reside in museums such as The Smithsonian Institute, the Carter Library, and the Solar Science and Technology Museum in Dezhou, China.

The White House Still Uses Solar Power Today

Next along in the presidential solar power saga is George W. Bush, who installed solar systems on the White House in 2002. One was an electric power source, and the other was a solar water heating system for the presidential swimming pool. Unlike Carter's big press conference, Bush was quieter about this, possibly to avoid alienating his Texas oil donors.

In 2013, then-president Obama updated the solar equipment. It's still powering the White House and providing other utility to this day.


Jimmy Carter Founded a Solar Power Plant

As an ex-president, Jimmy Carter's record as a hands-on statesman is legendary, with his work through Habitat for Humanity. But you may not know that in 2017, Carter leased a ten-acre tract of land in his home town of Plains, Georgia, to build a solar power array. In the years since, it has supplied 50% of the power needs of Plains, Georgia. This is the equivalent of 3.6K tons of coal per year.

What Inspiring Stories of Energy Progress Will We See Next?

Together, we are making a determined effort to convert the world to sustainable energy and head off a future climate emergency. It all starts with that grassroots activism from citizens just like you!

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