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Jimmy Carter

Throughout the 1970s, the back-to-the-land movement of the ’60s prevailed. People wanted fresh and pesticide-free food, energy efficient housing, natural building materials, natural fabrics and vehicles with good gas mileage. Living with nature and the planet drove the push to reduce the use of fossil fuels, especially after the oil embargo of 1973.

President Jimmy Carter was aligned with these ideals. After all, he was a farmer! In 1979, he had 32 solar panels installed on the roof of the White House for solar hot water. This showed the country and the world that we needed to move away from foreign oil dependence and onto renewable energy.

When Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, one of the first things he dictated was the removal of Carter’s solar panels. I remember this clearly. He claimed we needed to do more research to use solar energy. I called BS! Satellites in space were powered with solar panels, so his statement was just an excuse to keep the oil industry alive. I was furious with his actions and his lies.

What happened to Jimmy Carter’s solar panels?

In 1986, the solar panels were removed from the White House roof. One went to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, one to the Carter Library and one to the Solar Science and Technology Museum in Dezhou, China. Half of the panels were installed on the cafeteria roof at Unity College in Maine to reduce their energy bill. The remainder stayed in storage.

Reagan subsidized big oil and cut tax credits for renewable energy. The US and the world forgot about solar power while oil remained cheap and plentiful. Look where it has gotten us! We are doing R&D on solar that should have been done 30 years ago. We lost a lot of time.

Jimmy Carter’s solar panels: an alternative history

What if Carter had gotten a second term? What if we had continued on a path of reducing our independence on fossil fuels (foreign and domestic)? What if we HAD been developing solar all these years?

With progressive ideas like that in the White House, I imagine oil subsidies would have shifted to renewables, including wind, geothermal and wave energy. Oil would have gotten so expensive we couldn’t afford to put it in our cars or power our homes and businesses with it. Solar PV would have been in the forefront of development for electricity.

Today’s “renewables” would be known as “energy”

Carter’s energy policies of his single term would have been improved upon. R&D for electric vehicles would have meant the electric car would not have been an experiment with a tragic end. We would have been driving electric vehicles charged at solar power stations for many years. I wonder if Carter’s lower speed limits would have gone back up!

Solar PV is very affordable right now. With decades of research, that would have been the case a long time ago. There would be generating stations in neighborhoods and regionally, instead of on farm land and sensitive desert areas. Alternatively, there would be solar on every home and business.

Solar would be so common we would be calling it ‘energy’ or ‘electricity’ instead of referring to it as ‘solar’ or ‘renewable’. We like to think that ‘green building’ will just be called ‘building’ some day. Same with solar.

Solar energy in the mainstream today

Why is Obama stalling on putting solar back on the White House? What do he, the US and the world have to lose? When oil is depleted and natural gas and fracking outlawed, we will be wondering why Carter’s panels were removed and never replaced?

Fossil fuels will be gone, but the sun will still be shining. Governments and utilities will be scrambling to catch up and take advantage of this enormous, endless and free source of energy. They will have to overtake Germany’s lead first!

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Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer has been living and building green for over 35 years. Nan’s emphasis on the BuildDirect blog is about how to make your dollar stretch further, while also moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, as well as upcoming and existing technology to help us live in an ecologically-friendly way. Nan also authors posts on the website of her seed business, sweetly seeds.