The 39th President has been pivotal for solar and nuclear energy for over seventy years

A farewell to our solar President

The largest solar panel factory in the western hemisphere stands in the sprawl of a vast construction site in Dalton, Georgia. The factory, which has an annual manufactured capacity of 1.7 gigawatts, overlooks Interstate 75. It is a signifier of a hopeful future for the state, one rooted in renewable energy. But it is also the blossoming of decades of effort from one of Georgia’s most famous native sons.

Cars zoom by the factory at 80 miles an hour, adding to the noise of construction and excavation equipment. But if you drive south on that highway for four hours or so, exit at Cordele, and head west on state route 280, things get much quieter as you pass through cotton fields and pine forests. Take a few more turns and you’ll end up face to face with a more modest solar project: Seven acres of fields converted into a 1.3 megawatt solar farm. But this is no ordinary solar farm. It belongs to the 39th President of the United States, James Earl Carter.

In 2017, President Carter installed 3,852 solar panels onto his legendary peanut farm and now supplies roughly half the energy needs of his hometown of Plains, Georgia.

“Distributed, clean energy generation is critical to meeting growing energy needs around the world while fighting the effects of climate change,” he said in a press release at the time. “I am encouraged by the tremendous progress that solar and other clean energy solutions have made in recent years and expect those trends to continue.” (1)

Since then, he’s engaged the cooperative extension at the University of Georgia to enhance the biodiversity of the field. (2)

solar farm

The buckle of the battery belt

Jimmy Carter has always been ahead of the curve. In the six years since his Georgia farm went all- in on renewable energy, the rest of the state has followed and become an epicenter in the solar and clean energy field.

When the QCellsplant in Dalton is complete, the facility will have quadrupled its current record-breaking capacity to over five gigawatts of manufactured capacity annually. Meanwhile, Rivian, the cutting-edge EV maker, broke ground on a $5 billion manufacturing plant in rural Georgia in the fall of 2022. (3) In fact, the entire region has come on board.

The south, known for much of the twentieth century as the “bible belt,” is becoming the “battery belt,” as major construction projects for the new energy economy cover the region like kudzu. Toyota’s commitment of $13 billion for battery manufacturing in neighboring North Carolina has pulled in all the headlines, while GM has invested $2.3 billion in Spring Hill, Tennessee. A little further north, Ford has invested $5.8 billion in its Blue Oval Battery Park in Kentucky. (4)

A lifetime of energy

But President Carter’s seven-acre solar farm is only a late encounter with renewables. In many ways, he has spent a lifetime wrestling with the challenges around energy.

In the late 70s, OPEC (Organization of Oil Exporting Countries) embargoed the United States, sending the cost on an upward trajectory. And then, much like Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 threw oil supply chains into chaos and prices sky high. Gasoline was rationed at the pump and lines of cars stretched for blocks. Additionally, heating oil and coal were expected to be in short supply that winter and our nation faced a winter much like Europe just experienced.

President Carter responded with a mix of investment in energy alternatives and a call for Americans to cut back on consumption. He encouraged Americans to keep the thermostat low and “put on a sweater.” He also implemented fuel efficiency standards, requiring auto makers to find ways to increase the 13 miles per gallon rate average of the time. By tying America’s dependence on imported oil to national security, he made energy conservation a patriotic act.

White House

A solar president

Famously, he had solar panels installed on the roof of the White House. Unlike today’s semiconductor-based panels, the ones installed on the Carter White House were thermal, heating water by passing it through ten-centimeter-thick panels. They were removed in 1986, but have had a long and interesting career in the years since then, with many now housed in museums around the world. (6)

At the press event where the panels were unveiled, he set a goal of the U.S. supplying 20 percent of its energy needs with renewables by the year 2000. Policy changes under future administrations scuttled those efforts. But nearly a quarter-century later, with the climate crisis in full swing, the U.S. finally hit his goal in 2022. (7)

solar panels on white house

More than solar

Carter’s energy legacy extends beyond conservation and solar panels. The first major incident at a U.S. nuclear facility happened during Carter’s presidency. Public concerns around the safety of nuclear energy were already peaking when the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island occurred. Carter, a nuclear physicist by training, toured the plant with his wife in the aftermath of the disaster as a way to calm residents and lend a reassuring voice to those dealing with the ongoing crisis.

Amazingly, Three Mile Island was not Jimmy Carter’s first encounter with a nuclear meltdown. In 1952, Carter was a 28-year-old Navy officer serving on a nuclear submarine. When a reactor at Chalk River in Ontario, Canada melted down, Lieutenant Carter was one of the few people in the world qualified to deal with the faulty equipment. He trained, then led a team into the reactor to safely shut the facility down. (8)

When President Carter’s family announced last month that he was entering hospice, commenters far and wide discussed his presidency and his many accomplishments in his forty-year career since. With election monitoring and guinea-worm eradication getting much attention, his clean energy work can sometimes be overlooked. It is hard to overstate how much of the work he has done has anticipated our current energy needs.

The Weekly Sunsong

We don’t have a song this week, but we do have music. Here’s Jimmy Carter, Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson talking about their friendship. From the movie, Jimmy Carter, Rock and Roll President.