Jimmy Carter Makes a Stand for Solar, Decades After the Cardigan Sweater

Source: By ALAN BLINDER, New York Times • Posted: Monday, February 13, 2017

PLAINS, Ga. — The solar panels — 3,852 of them — shimmered above 10 acres of Jimmy Carter’s soil where peanuts and soybeans used to grow. The panels moved almost imperceptibly with the sun. And they could power more than half of this small town, from which Mr. Carter rose from obscurity to the presidency.

Nearly 38 years after Mr. Carter installed solar panels at the White House, only to see them removed during Ronald Reagan’s administration, the former president is leasing part of his family’s farmland for a project that is both cutting edge and homespun. It is, Mr. Carter and energy experts said, a small-scale effort that could hold lessons for other pockets of pastoral America in an age of climate change and political rancor.

But Mr. Carter’s project, years in the making, has come into operation at a dizzying moment for renewable energy advocates. Although solar power consumption has more than doubled in the United States since 2013, President Trump has expressed skepticism about the costs of such energy sources, and he has pledged to revive the nation’s languishing coal industry. Yet in some of the rural areas where Mr. Trump enjoys substantial support, renewable energy projects have emerged as important economic forces.

“I hope that we’ll see a realization on the part of the new administration that one of the best ways to provide new jobs — good-paying and productive and innovative jobs — is through the search for renewable sources of energy,” Mr. Carter, 92, said in an interview at his former high school. “I haven’t seen that happen yet, but I’m still hoping for that.”

Some of the 3,852 solar panels in a field owned by Mr. Carter in Plains. Kevin D. Liles for The New York Times 

Although Mr. Carter, now decades removed from the night in February 1977 when he donned a cardigan sweater and spoke of the country’s “energy problem,” remains a keen student of energy policy, the solar project is also an extension of his legacy here.

Mr. Carter has long shaped Plains, where he is known as “Mr. Jimmy,” and the Sunday school teacher’s grin — in snapshots, in paintings and in caricature on Christmas ornaments and a 13-foot peanut statue — is hard to miss. The presidential seal graces welcome signs, which are illuminated, fittingly, by solar electricity, and the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site has attracted more than 1.6 million visitors since 1988.

The project on Mr. Carter’s land, which feeds into Georgia Power’s grid and earns the former first family less than $7,000 annually, did not need to be large to serve much of Plains, population 683 or so. It began when a solar firm, SolAmerica, approached Mr. Carter’s grandson Jason Carter about the possibility of installing panels here.

Jason Carter, a grandson of the former president, explaining to his sons, Henry, 10, and Thomas, 8, how solar panels work. A solar firm approached Jason Carter about the possibility of installing the panels.Kevin D. Liles for The New York Times 

The former president, who was 11 when his boyhood home got running water after his father installed a windmill, did not need convincing and became deeply involved with the project, writing notes in the margins of the lease agreement and visiting the site regularly.

Mr. Carter, Jason Carter recalled this week, regularly sent pictures of the construction on the farmland, which he often passed during walks here with his wife, Rosalynn.

“When I told people we were getting solar panels, they said, ‘In Plains?’” said Jan Williams, who runs the Plains Historic Inn and helps to organize Mr. Carter’s regular Sunday school classes, which remain a draw for tourists. “They say, ‘Well, that’s because of Jimmy Carter.’ It is because of Jimmy Carter. Plains is all because of Jimmy Carter.”

The Plains project, limited in size, according to Mr. Carter and SolAmerica, because of what existing infrastructure could handle, is far from the first solar effort in Georgia. But it is among the highest-profile projects in a state where, after years of reluctance, regulators have demanded that the predominant utility company place a greater emphasis on solar power.

In this state, and in other parts of the country where many residents are unconvinced of climate change, renewable energy supporters have often tailored their pitches to focus on economic benefits. A plurality of Georgia’s electric generation jobs are in solar, according to the Department of Energy.

“The old politicized arguments about renewable energy being for coastal liberals just don’t play anymore in parts of the country where they’re experiencing firsthand the economic benefits of renewable energy development and job creation,” said Jodie Van Horn, the director of the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 campaign, which pushes American cities to commit to entirely renewable energy offerings.

Renewable energy supporters do not have to ignore climate change arguments entirely, though. In 2014 in Sumter County, which includes Plains, 62 percent of residents believed global warming was happening, according to an estimate from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. That is slightly higher than some counties in metropolitan Atlanta.

But Mr. Trump’s ascension has placed new pressure on renewable energy boosters. Although Mr. Trump has pledged to promote a policy that would “make full use of our domestic energy sources, including traditional and renewable energy sources,” he has proudly depicted himself as a champion of coal.

In 1979, President Carter showed off new solar panels on the West Wing that would provide hot water for the White House. President Ronald Reagan later had them removed. Jimmy Carter Presidential Library 

Stan Wise, the chairman of the Georgia Public Service Commission, which has no Democratic members, said he expected solar to endure, in part because it had “found its niche.”

“It may not grow as quickly in this country without benefit of federal government assistance, but I think if you leave these entities alone, whether it’s coal or gas or solar, they’ll find their way if they’re right in your state,” said Mr. Wise, who noted that Georgia Power had, after a bidding process, accepted Mr. Carter’s proposal to participate in a solar program it runs.

But Mr. Trump’s views have alarmed Mr. Carter.

“I’m afraid — and hope that I’m wrong — that Trump might do the same thing that Ronald Reagan did and say we can be sufficient ourselves without renewable energy,” Mr. Carter said. “But I hope he doesn’t do that.”

This week, though, Mr. Carter’s energy ambitions were decidedly more local when, dressed in jeans with a small mud stain near his left ankle, he alighted from a gray Ford pickup truck to see the solar panels again. But the memories of Mr. Carter and his wife were not far from the presidency.

“It’s very special to me because I was so disappointed when the panels came off of the White House, and now to see them in Plains is just terrific,” Mrs. Carter said softly after a ribbon-cutting ceremony.