History can be seen as crossroads where people pick paths and live with the consequences, with some paths leading to grave dangers. Election 1980 was one such crossroad as Americans made the feel-good choice of Ronald Reagan over the eat-your-peas option of Jimmy Carter — taking a path to climate catastrophe, says Sam Parry.
By Sam Parry
The documentary “A Road Not Taken” chronicles the story of the 32 solar panels that President Jimmy Carter installed on the roof of the White House in 1979, the same solar panels President Ronald Reagan unceremoniously removed.
Yet, besides following the fate of these particular solar panels, the 2010 documentary reflects on the lost opportunity for the United States and the world in the change of direction that the solar panels represented, the fateful turn on energy issues from Carter’s presidency to Reagan’s.
The documentary depicts the 1979 installation of the solar panels to heat water for the staff cafeteria at the White House as one of the most visible symbols of the energy policies of the Carter administration, which did more than any other before or since to promote the goals of alternative energy and conservation.
And, for Carter, the dual causes of renewable energy and energy independence were always high on his agenda. In early February 1977, just two weeks into his presidency, Carter gave a national televised fireside chat, wearing a yellow wool sweater and promoting a national energy policy as a top priority for his administration.
Over the next four years, Carter turned this commitment into a multitude of programs and initiatives. Carter created the Department of Energy, taxed oil company profits, improved automobile fuel efficiency, invested heavily in the Solar Energy Research Institute (the precursor to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory), cut America’s oil imports in half, and increased U.S. use of renewable energy like solar power with a goal of generating 20 percent of all energy consumed in America from renewable sources by 2000.
However, after Carter was out of the White House, President Reagan not only removed the solar panels from the roof, he systematically dismantled Carter’s alternative energy and conservation initiatives. Reagan became the anti-Carter in almost every way on energy policy. Reagan slashed the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s budget by 90 percent, halved the Energy Department’s conservation and alternative fuels budget, eliminated the wind investment tax credit, reduced spending on solar photovoltaic research by two-thirds, slashed energy tax credits for homeowners, and reduced fuel-efficiency standards for cars.
Due largely to Reagan’s policy reversals on alternative energy, the United States fell far short of Carter’s goal of getting 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2000, achieving about only one-quarter of that target, even less than what Carter’s policies had achieved by the early 1980s. In retrospect, it is clear that Reagan made reckless policy choices that had grave consequences for American energy security, for the environment and for the future survivability of life on planet Earth. […]