The 1970s were a time of transition for the United States’ energy policy. During this time, the country was dealing with an energy crisis that threatened the nation both environmentally and economically. The United States was heavily reliant on foreign oil, and many Americans were feeling the effects of the 1973 Arab oil embargo, standing in line for hours to get gasoline and paying significantly higher gas prices. Seeing the toll this crisis was taking on the country, President Jimmy Carter became focused on improving America’s energy independence and reducing its environmental impact through greater use of renewable energy. It was a goal Carter maintained throughout his presidency.
In his 1979 State of the Union address, Carter said he envisioned that the United States would get 20 percent of its energy from renewable resources by the year 2000. “I made a public commitment in 1979 that by the year 2000 we would have at least 20 percent of the nation's energy coming from renewable sources—from geothermal, or from the wind, or the sunshine,” he told the Sierra Club in a recent interview. It was this ambition that moved Carter to pass legislation and create a national energy policy that promoted greater use of renewable resources and less reliance on oil.
As part of his efforts to stimulate the development and adoption of renewable energy resources, in 1977, Carter signed the Department of Energy (DOE) Organization Act. Under the Department of Energy Organization Act, the DOE was given two main responsibilities: supporting nuclear-weapons research and centralizing existing government programs focusing on energy. The research and development of novel energy technologies was at the forefront of the department’s mission, but the DOE was also responsible for energy policy regulation, and the collection and analysis of energy-related data.
In 1978, Carter introduced the National Energy Act, which established energy goals, specifically reducing the nation’s dependency on oil and increasing the use of renewable resources, such as solar energy. The act also mandated improved automotive mileage standards to ensure vehicles became more fuel-efficient. This was later followed by the Energy Security Act of 1980, which loaned money to private industry to seek innovative approaches to renewable energy. Carter also included tax credits in both laws as incentives to businesses and homeowners to invest in renewable resources.
In addition to establishing these policy changes, Carter encouraged a public conversation on renewable energy and environmental protection. He—and those he inspired—called on Americans to cut back on waste and use energy resources more efficiently. “Every act of energy conservation like this is more than just common sense –I tell you it is an act of patriotism,” he stated in a 1979 address to the nation on Energy and National Goals.
Carter had a particular interest in developing solar energy on a larger scale—large enough to store energy or put electricity into the grid. In 1977, Carter motivated solar research by introducing the Solar Energy Research Institute, which still exists today and is called the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Carter established May 3, 1978 as Sun Day to celebrate the potential of solar energy and raise public awareness of its possibilities. The following year, the government increased the funds available for solar energy research and development.
In June 1979, Carter made a symbolic gesture to demonstrate his administration’s commitment to renewable energy. He had thirty-two solar panels added to the roof of the White House to heat water in the building. The solar panels came down in 1986 during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.
Today, Carter remains committed to renewable energy. He had 324 photovoltaic panels installed at his presidential library in Atlanta, Georgia, providing about seven percent of the electricity used at the library. He also installed around 3,500 solar panels at his farm in Plains, Georgia to supply electricity to the farm and the surrounding community. According to Carter, the panels can produce about 1.3 megawatts of electricity annually, which is equal to that produced by burning 3,600 tons of coal. These panels meet half of the town’s electricity needs.
Carter told the Sierra Club, “I've been very proud of the project in Plains. I hope that my example as a former president will encourage others to pursue the same route. And I hope that the major power companies will adopt this as a commitment.”