The White House Solar Panels with Jimmy Carter
White House Solar Panels with Jimmy Carter. (Canadian Centre for Architecture)

The White House itself harvests the power of the sun. Solar photovoltaic panels and water heaters are installed on the building’s roof.

It all started back in 1979 when then-President Jimmy Carter installed 32 solar panels on the White House roof.

The panels were used to heat water for the first family and for water in the White House laundry and cafeteria.

At the unveiling, President Carter said: “In the year 2000, this solar water heater will still be here supplying cheap, efficient energy.”

But he was wrong. The White House did not have solar panels in 2000.

To understand what happened, we have to go back to the Reagan administration.

The 32 panels were ripped out in 1986, as, “Yes,” you guessed right. The Reagan administration weren’t fans of solar.

Some people argue that the solar panels weren’t actually ripped out. That they were removed because of required work on the roof beneath them, and not due to spite or anti-environmentalism.

But the story continued that when asked if the solar panels would be re-installed, a White House spokesperson at the time said: “Putting them back up would be very unwise, based on cost.”

Scientific American reported that by 1986, the Reagan administration had gutted the research and development budgets for renewable energy at the then-fledgling U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) and eliminated tax breaks for the deployment of wind turbines and solar technologies—recommitting the nation to reliance on cheap but polluting fossil fuels, often from foreign suppliers.

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

Carter’s panels were rudimentary, but it’s estimated they generated 12,264 kWh of energy per year.

That’s more than the average amount of energy an American home uses annually or the equivalent of 9,197 pounds of burning coal.

Solar panels didn’t return to the White House grounds until 2002.

The Bush administration installed solar water heaters on the Cabana’s roof to heat the White House pool.

Solar photovoltaic panels were also installed on the White House roof in 2014.

They are 6 times more powerful than the previous ones and will pay for themselves after 8 years of use.

The Trump administration just has to keep them there, but with Trump’s roll-backs on every progressive policy on climate change mitigation and renewable energy incentives including those developed by the Obama administration, who knows?

Also for some reason, Carter’s solar panels can be seen today at museums and show houses all over 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.

Huang Ming, chairman of Himin Solar Energy Group Co., the largest manufacturer of such solar hot water heaters in the world, accepted the donation for permanent display there.

After all, companies like his in China now produce some 80 percent of the solar water heaters used in the world today.

Derick Lila
Derick is a Clark University graduate—and Fulbright alumni with a Master's Degree in Environmental Science, and Policy. He has over a decade of solar industry research, marketing, and content strategy experience.

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1 Comment

  1. Great history lesson, it appears that republican administrations have continuously held back renewable energy technology. America would have been the leader in solar had not Regan’ and the Bush administrations denial campaigns succeeded. Now we have the most brazen climate denier POTUS. We the people elected them so we the people will suffer from our choices.

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