Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared on this site Nov. 11, 2008.
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.
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 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 rooftop 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 in 2008 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% 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 toward the development of photovoltaic cells, the kind that could put energy into the grid.
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 reinstalled. 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 longtime 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. But in 2008, Meese 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 Dec. 31, 1985, just months before the White House roof coup d’état.
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 book, “Gusher of Lies.”
Eventually, 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.
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.
Editor’s note: A lot has happened since we first published this article in 2008.
ThoughtCo also reports that the Carter panels “can be seen today at museums and show houses around the world. One resides at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, one at the Carter Library and, one joined the collection of the Solar Science and Technology Museum in Dezhou, China.”