Solar on the White House Roof

On June 20, 1979, the White House press corps was led up a back stairway, through an unmarked door, and onto the roof of the West Wing. It was a bright, sunny day, and the reporters to squint as they found seats, shielding their eyes with handouts that had been placed earlier on folding chairs facing the familiar presidential podium.  The handouts described, in impressive scientific detail, the specifications and inner working of the strange objects looming behind the lectern: a row of four large thermal solar collectors bolted to the roof, slanted at a roughly 45 degree angle to the sun blazing overhead.

As their eyes adjusted to the outdoor glare, the reporters gaped at the apparatus, and could never have guessed that only a few decades later millions of American homeowners would install solar panel systems just like this on their homes to save energy.   Many had read a lot about solar energy, which gotten a lot of media play ever since the Arab oil embargo against the United States in 1973 and the Iranian revolution of 1979 had resulted in a nearly decade-long energy crisis.  But for most of the journalists on the White House roof that June day, this was their first up close look at a solar panel.  And, at 12 feet by six feet, the steel-framed, glass-covered slabs were a sight to behold.  As the briefing materials explained, the panels were thermal solar collectors used to heat water for the White House staff mess and other parts of the presidential mansion.  Rods imbedded inside the collectors carried sun-heated water to a storage tank in the White House basement, from which hot water could be drawn as needed.  Water heating solar panels had been around for decades, but adding them to the White House—that was a bold move, and a big story.  The journalists chatted animatedly amongst themselves, trading theories on how Carter would use the panels to jumpstart his solar energy initiative, which had been in the works for months.

Moments later, the reporters straightened in their seats, readying notebooks, pens and tape recorders as White House press secretary Jody Powell introduced the president.  Standing behind the familiar microphone-encrusted lectern bearing the official seal of the President of the United States of America, Carter appeared worn, his reddish-hair noticeably grayer than it had been at the beginning of his term.  It had been a trying three years since his triumphant election in 1976.  The only recently concluded debacle in Vietnam, inflation, energy crises, gas lines—all had taken a toll on the American psyche and weakened the United States’ standing as a global superpower.  Despite Carter’s best efforts at reinforcing the national backbone, his speeches and televised fireside chats proposing solutions to America’s daunting energy problems failed to dispel a general malaise blanketing country.  American was on the wane, it seemed, beholden to OPEC’s capricious masters.

But as Carter stood before the press corps with the newly installed solar panels at his back, the president had a new sense of purpose.  After all the dire warnings about dependency on foreign oil and the need to cut back and consume less, here, finally, was some good news.  The White House solar installation was a symbolic but nevertheless concrete illustration of American knowhow and ingenuity—the very things, Carter and many supporters hoped, that would lead the United States to a brighter and more secure energy future.  “No one can ever embargo the sun or interrupt it delivery to us,” Carter told the press, injecting as much conviction as he could into his lilting Georgian drawl.  “A generation from now,” the president continued, “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; harnessing the power of the Sun to enrich our lives as we move away from our crippling dependence on foreign oil.” Comparing himself to the country’s 23rd president, Benjamin Harrison, who in 1891 became the first president to have electric lighting installed in the White House, Carter hoped that his demonstration of faith in solar energy would help spark widespread use of the technology.  As the reporters scribbled furiously in their notebooks, Carter outlined a solar-powered future.  He would ask Congress to approve a $100 million “solar energy bank” with the goal of generating 20% of U.S. power from alternative (i.e. non-Middle East oil) energy sources by 2000.  To fund this ambitious plan, Carter said, he would urge Congress to pass a “windfall profits” tax on the domestic oil industry and subsidies to encourage contractors to install solar panels on new and existing buildings.

After his speech, Carter invited the reporters to take a closer look at the solar panels.  Showing off the hardware, Carter was clearly in his element.  A trained scientist with a bachelor of science from the U.S. Naval Academy and graduate work in nuclear physics, Carter was interested in how things worked and fascinated by cutting edge technology.  The media were duly impressed.  The next day’s papers were generally supportive of Carter’s solar initiative, and even the handful of critical editorials were ultimately favorable, harping on the need for the president to do even more to encourage solar power and other forms of renewable energy. It was, for once, a moment of hope in Jimmy Carter’s often-beleaguered presidency.

But, in the end, it was only a moment—and a fleeting one at that.  Less than four months later, on Nov. 4, an Islamist militant group, “Imam’s Disciples,” stormed the American embassy in Iran, taking more than 60 Americans hostage.  Domestic issues—solar energy included—were put aside as the country sat riveted by footage of Iranian mobs, anti-American graffiti, and the blindfolded hostages paraded in front of news cameras.  By April of 1980, Carter, desperate to end the crisis and gain a political foothold against Ronald Reagan in the upcoming election, green-lighted Operation Eagle Claw, a high-risk rescue mission led by Delta Force—the U.S. Army’s top-secret counterterrorism unit.  The mission’s spectacular failure, involving a helicopter crash resulting in the deaths of eight American soldiers, and devastating footage of the smoking remains on Iranian TV, doomed Carter’s re-election bid, and with it any hope for the solar bank plan. Reagan’s landslide victory in 1980 coincided with an excess of oil caused by falling demand in the wake of the crisis-ridden 70s.  Consequently, gasoline prices began a steady decline and gas lines disappeared, effectively ending the energy crisis.  Inevitably, interest in solar energy died down.  The flood of articles on solar technology in newspapers and magazines in the 70s had by the early 80s slowed to a trickle while government funding for solar research dried up.

Today, more than three decades since Jimmy Carter showed off his prized White House solar panels, his warning that they could become a curiosity and museum piece has literally come to pass.  In 1986, Reagan had the panels removed during routine White House roof maintenance and never bothered replacing them.  After collecting dust in storage for more than a decade, the panels were donated to environmentally minded Unity College, in Maine, where they provided hot water for the school’s cafeteria.  One of the panels is now on display at the Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta.  And so, in a sense, the fate of Carter’s solar heater is an “example of a road not taken.”


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3 Responses to “Solar on the White House Roof”

  1. mysolarinstaller December 13, 2013 at 11:14 am #

    Your statement about an embargo on the sun is correct. We need to utilize and implement solar technologies on a grand scale to benefit all. In this effort we provide a free resource to all to help them locate the most qualified solar energy solution providers wherever they live- https://www.mysolarinstaller.com . Together we can!

  2. mysolarinstaller December 13, 2013 at 11:12 am #

    Very correct in your statement about embargo on the sun. Solar energy tech and innovations is the future. Locate solar companies wherever you live: https://www.mysolarinstaller.com it’s free for all. We encourage everyone to get informed and get involved. The more people involved means the cheaper solar tech becomes for all.

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  1. VCs and Angels and Investing in Green | EcoSalon | Conscious Culture and Fashion - May 16, 2011

    […] the panels went up, play a key role in Carter losing the Presidency). At the installation ceremony, Carter said: “No one can ever embargo the sun or interrupt its delivery to […]

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