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Days of 'Malaise' and Jimmy Carter's Solar Panels

“A new solar hot water heating system being installed at the White House costs thousands of dollars more that the original estimate and it probably won’t pay for itself in energy savings, officials said.”

So went the lede of a story in the Associated Press and reprinted in the Washington Post on April 6th, 1979 about President Jimmy Carter’s newest public relations stunt in the midst of the energy crisis. This was on the heels of lowering the thermostats in the White House, and later in the year, turning off the White House Christmas lights to show his concern over energy usage while also claiming he did so to show support for the hostages being held in Tehran by the Ayatollah Khomeini. In Carterland, this was seen as a public relations “twofer.”

Voltaire once said, “History is a pack of lies, agreed upon.” Truer words were never spoken, especially over the current handwringing by environmentalists and liberal revisionists as to why Ronald Reagan had the useless solar panels and endless pipes removed when he became president.

Revisionist history is current attempting to portray Carter as a forward looking environmentalist and Reagan as some cold hearted capitalist but as a matter of fact, in another public relations initiative, the 39th president also proposed tax credits for wood burning stoves. One can imagine a denuded American continent, bereft of any trees because Americans had cut down all the forests. Environmentalists tend to be silly people and a favored bumper sticker at the time proudly proclaimed, “Split Wood, Not Atoms.”

The Associated Press story elaborated, as unnamed White House officials called the solar panels an “economic dog.” Carter’s cousin, Hugh Carter, was in charge of the parsimous Georgian’s White House, but with Jimmy Carter, public relations often seemed to trump good policy, even spending policy. 

Several of Carter’s energy initiatives included closing off exploration for oil and gas in Alaska and western states, proposing time and again a new federal tax of 50 cents per gallon on gasoline, and the creation of the Department of Energy, one of the great government boondoggles of all time, whose goal was to solve the energy crisis. Americans have only been waiting for a little over thirty years to figure out the real mission of the DOE.

During his time of office, he ordered the oil companies to stop refining gasoline and instead refine home heating oil for a coming winter. The order resulted in gasoline lines that snaked around gas stations across the country. In many places including Northern Virginia, fist fights broke out among furious drivers. Rationing policies were initiated by many states, some based on Social Security numbers, others based on “odd” or “even” license plates, but these were obviously easy to beat. And often were.

Americans became especially furious when they learned the Congress had it very own gas station, which was selling the then precious liquid for much less than the taxpayers were shelling out. At his inaugural, Carter had arranged for “solar reflectors” to keep those in the reviewing stand warm, but according to The Economist, “electric heaters will be ready in case the sun fails to shine.”

At one point, Carter issued an Executive Order directing the private sector not to lower their air conditioning below 78 degrees in the summer nor raise their heat above 66 degrees in the winter. Across the country, the order was ignored. However, he did propose “inducements” to force industrial America to switch from oil and natural gas to coal. Conservationists now routinely denounce coal. 

He also proposed at one point that mortgages not be granted to home buyers until the federal government has certified the home was sufficiently insulated. Americans who did voluntarily cut their electricity usage found to their horror that their bills actually had gone up, a cruel reminder of how economics works.

Carter also proclaimed May 3 as “National Sun Day” and pressed for the creation of a Administration official to boost solar poer whose job title only lacked the title “Czar.” In Los Angeles, a race between solar cars took place, but it was never reported if any of them actually finished the contest.

The solar panels were originally “supposed to cost” the taxpayers “$24,000 to install and would cut utility bills by $1,000 a year to start.” Imagine that. Carter’s plan was for the panels to pay for themselves in 24 years! Even that platy went awry however, as Cousin Hugh could not find anyone to install them for less than $28,000 and, to accommodate the ugly White Elephant, another $7,000 would have to be spent tearing up the White House roof!

In spite of all the arguments against the useless panels, Carter had the contraption installed anyway, a monument to the fecklessness of his so-called conservation policies. Washingtonians laughed, “There he goes again.”

Government officials---including Carter---actually discussed regulations to control access to the sun.

Early in his term, Carter sat before a roaring fire dressed in a sweater, calling on the American people to sacrifice and conserve energy. He called his campaign the “Moral Equivalent Of War,” but Americans felled to laugher when they realized the acronym of Carter’s plan. After the sweater incident, he picked up the nickname, “Jimmy Cardigan.” Anyone who knows about fireplaces will tell you that an open fire in a hearth sucks all the heat out of a building leaving it colder that it would have without the fire in the first place. But that night, it did make a
pretty television shot for the president.

There was no energy crisis. There was a crisis of harebrained government regulators, interfering with the free market, who created the problems in the first place. In the 1840’s, Charles Dickens visited Washington. Unimpressed with the city and the government, he sniffed, “Few people would live in Washington, I take it, who were not obliged to live there.”

The current occupant of the White House is fearful of unfavorable comparisons to Carter, but at least the Carters chose to send their daughter Amy to the public schools in the District.

After becoming president in January of 1981, one of Ronald Reagan’s first orders was to decontrol the price of gasoline. Nervous editorialists warned darkly that this would send prices skyrocketing, but the economics major from Eureka College knew something about supply and demand. In fact, the price of gasoline fell, supplies became plentiful and in 29 years, there has never been a gas line in America.

Craig Shirley is president of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs and has written two books on Ronald Reagan, including his newest, "Rendezvous With Destiny" (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2009). He is now working on a political biography of Newt Gingrich.

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