Global warming, carbon emissions and climate change have been hot topics for decades. All the while, the reigning U.S. administration has changed its tone with each election. As a result, the focus on renewable energy has waned and grown throughout the country and in the president’s own home. In fact, since the White House was first equipped with electricity, the use of renewable energy sources has seen an ebb and flow that matches the attitude of the commander in chief at the time. 

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An overhead view of the White House.

The beginning of electricity at the White House

September 1891 saw the introduction of electricity to the White House, although Mr. and Mrs. Harrison, President and First Lady at the time, feared electrocution and never touched the switches as a result.

Related: Activists protest Biden’s compromised green infrastructure deal

In 1926 President Calvin Coolidge saw the installment of the first electric refrigerator at the residence. Six years later, the Roosevelts installed air conditioning in the private quarters. Beginning in 1948, the White House saw an extensive renovation under the guidance of President Truman, which included upgrades to the electrical system.

President Lyndon Johnson set an example of electricity conservation in the 1960s by consistently turning off lights when not in use, earning him the moniker “Light Bulb Johnson.”

Solar panels against a cloudy sky.

The first solar panels at the White House

The year 1979 saw the first solar panel installation at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue when President Jimmy Carter had 32 solar panels placed on the White House roof in response to a national energy crisis (a result of the Arab oil embargo). Although the technology of the time did little more than heat water for the cafeteria and laundry, Carter hoped it would set an example for the future of the country saying, “a generation from now, 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.”

However, his intentions didn’t take hold, and the solar panels were removed during the Reagan administration while roofing work was being done. While cost may have been a factor in the decision not to reinstall the solar panels, Reagan’s policies made it clear he supports oil more than green energy.

When the Clintons moved into office and the residence, they committed to “Greening the White House,” which included installing energy-efficient windows, light bulbs and a new HVAC system.

A person in construction clothes working on solar panels.

The first solar power system on site

Breaking the trend of Democrats leaning into renewable options and Republicans reversing them, George W. Bush was the first to install a solar system that provided electricity to the grounds. The 9-kilowatt system produced both current and hot water, which was used in part to warm the presidential pool.

Another notable event in the history of the White House’s sustainability journey took place in 2008 when the iconic Portico lantern was upgraded to LEDs.

The arrival of modern solar panels

President Barack Obama, who was very vocal about prioritizing environmental issues, oversaw the installation of solar panels, completed in 2014. He also installed a solar water heater in the residence. 

“By installing solar panels on arguably the most famous house in the country, his residence, the president is underscoring that commitment to lead and the promise and importance of renewable energy in the United States,” said Nancy Sutley, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

This newer technology was six times more effective than the solar equipment Carter installed, making a financial difference and not just a symbolic one. Those solar panels are still in use today. 

The Trump administration not only did not put a priority on renewable resources but actively worked to roll back many of the environmental protections put in place before he took office.

A lawn covered in solar panels.

Solar panels make history

For historical value, the solar panels installed during the Carter administration were kept in governmental storage until 1991, when half were installed above the cafeteria at Unity College in Maine. Here they provided hot water until the end of their useful life in 2005. 

Today, other White House solar panels are on display at museums in the United States and China. Specifically, there are examples at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington D.C., Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, and the Solar Science and Technology Museum in Dezhou, China. 

There’s also one on display at the NRG Systems headquarters, as an example of early technology at a company that manufactures modern wind and solar technology solutions.

With all eyes on the White House for guidance on where we’ll focus next in the current of renewable energy, it’s clear that it will be some time before we see universal agreement on how to approach the topic. 

For more information on the history of the solar panels President Jimmy Carter installed, you can check out the 2010 documentary “A Road Not Taken,” which details their journey from 1979 to 1986.


Via Thought Co. and Sullivan Solar Power 

Images via Pexels