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‘Jimmy Carter Unveiling Solar Panels Atop the White House. Ronald Reagan Removed Them 2 Years Later’

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U.S. President Jimmy Carter installed solar panels on the White House, and his successor Ronald Reagan removed them.

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On October 6 2022, a submission to r/pics came with the claim that former United States President Jimmy Carter had at one point unveiled solar panels on the White House — only to have his successor uninstall them just two years after the photograph was taken:

Jimmy Carter unveiling solar panels atop the White House. Ronald Reagan removed them 2 years later. from pics

As is often the case, the comments section largely focused on the policies of Reagan’s administration, not the image itself. Reverse image search primarily returned dead links beginning around 2008 — an increasingly common problem — and the image’s source was not immediately apparent.

The description did include slightly confusing elements. According to its title, Carter “unveiled” solar panels “atop the White House,” but the solar panel (and the people in the photograph) appeared to be viewing a solar panel not attached to the structure’s roof — perhaps as an example for the press.

Using the Internet Archive, we retrieved a no-longer-functional link to the environmental site TreeHugger.com, where the image was used in a July 2008 post about Carter and renewable energy. A caption for the image there was less confusing:

Jimmy Carter with solar panel at White House. Ronald Reagan ripped it off.

Several pages into our reverse image search, we located a February 2017 New York Times article, “Jimmy Carter Makes a Stand for Solar, Decades After the Cardigan Sweater.” It featured the image seen in the post, with an informative caption and source for the image:

In 1979, President Carter showed off new solar panels on the West Wing that would provide hot water for the White House. President Ronald Reagan later had them removed.

[Jimmy Carter Presidential Library]

The article itself addressed Carter’s installation of solar panels on the White House in 1979, and Reagan’s decision to unmount the White House solar panels:

The solar panels — 3,852 of them — shimmered above 10 acres of Jimmy Carter’s soil where peanuts and soybeans used to grow. The panels moved almost imperceptibly with the sun. And they could power more than half of this small town, from which Mr. Carter rose from obscurity to the presidency.

Nearly 38 years after Mr. Carter installed solar panels at the White House [in 1979], only to see them removed during Ronald Reagan’s administration, the former president is leasing part of his family’s farmland for a project that is both cutting edge and homespun. It is, Mr. Carter and energy experts said, a small-scale effort that could hold lessons for other pockets of pastoral America in an age of climate change and political rancor.

More granular detail was provided in a brief summary in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s online archives:

During his term in office, President Jimmy Carter fought for clean energy using renewable sources. As a symbol of his faith in “the power of the sun,” Carter had 32 solar panels installed on the White House West Wing roof in the summer of 1979. These panels were used to heat water in the household for seven years until President Ronald Reagan had them removed in 1986. The panels were stored in a government warehouse until 1991, when they were acquired by Unity College in Maine. The college installed some of the panels to heat their cafeteria water.

An August 2010 article in Scientific American (“Where Did the Carter White House’s Solar Panels Go?”) reported:

The White House itself once harvested the power of the sun. On June 20, 1979, the Carter administration installed 32 panels designed to harvest the sun’s rays and use them to heat water.

[…]

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.”

And in 1986 the Reagan administration quietly dismantled the White House solar panel installation while resurfacing the roof. “Hey! That system is working. Why don’t you keep it?” recalls mechanical engineer Fred Morse, now of Abengoa Solar, who helped install the original solar panels as director of the solar energy program during the Carter years and then watched as they were dismantled during his tenure in the same job under Reagan. “Hey! This whole [renewable] R&D program is working, why don’t you keep it?”

On October 6 2022, a popular Reddit post claimed that former U.S. President Jimmy Carter “unveiled” solar panels on the White House, and that his successor, former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, “removed them 2 years later.” It is true that Carter installed solar panels on the White House in June 1979, and further true that Reagan removed the working panels — in 1986. Although the claim was functionally true, some minor details in the title of the Reddit posting were inaccurate.