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How Ronald Reagan Turned Out the Lights on Solar Power

In an excerpt from his new book, John Perlin reveals how one of the first actions of the new Reagan administration was to dim the lights on the solar energy program.
 
 
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Although the Americans invented the first practical solar cell and until 1980 almost all solar cells were built in the United States, the American government has held, until very recently, a schizophrenic policy, generously funding photovoltaics for military satellites while withholding support for the use of solar on Earth for civilians.

In 1973 the Nixon administration had tasked the Atomic Energy Commission to publish a report, The Nation’s Energy Future, allegedly based on the National Science Foundation’s analysis of the best energy choices for America. The Nation’s Energy Future proposed spending more than $4 billion for the nuclear option—almost $3 billion for the breeder reactor and nearly $1.5 billion for fusion—out of a $10 billion energy budget over a five-year period. The same report recommended a mere $36 million for solar cells, suggesting that, according to the National Science Foundation, photovoltaics’ contribution to America’s electrical supply would be almost nil through the year 2000.

Dr. Barry Commoner, a distinguished scientist and strong solar advocate, was “surprised and troubled by the smallness of both the proposed solar research budget and expected results.” He wanted to see the data from the National Science Foundation that supported the Atomic Energy Commission’s dismal view of the future of solar power, especially since Solar Subpanel IX, the scientific panel that appraised photovoltaics’ contribution, was made up of, in Commoner’s judgment, “a distinguished group of experts.” A report by Solar Subpanel IX contained their findings, the scientist learned; when Commoner asked to see a copy of the report, the Nixon administration denied that such a report existed. Not believing the response credible, Commoner enlisted the support of Senator James Abourezk of South Dakota, a strong supporter of solar energy. He received the same runaround. Finally, a solar-energy friendly “Deep Throat” told the senator that a copy existed and could be found at the Atomic Energy Commission’s document reading room. According to Commoner, “This turned out to be a dim photocopy of a hazy carbon; but it has brilliantly illuminated” the discrepancies between the science and politics of energy.

Unlike the author of The Nation’s Energy Future, the subpanel recommended an outlay of almost six times more money than the Atomic Energy Commission had requested for research and development of solar cells. Furthermore, the National Science Foundation had great expectations for solar electricity, predicting that with its suggested outlay of funds for photovoltaics, solar cells would supply “more than 7 percent of the required U.S. electrical generation capacity by the year 2000,” even though the expenditure for the solar option would be 16 times less than for the nuclear choice. The subpanel also found the solar option more appealing because “in contrast to problems incurred by nuclear plants, photovoltaic systems would find wide public acceptance because of their minimal impact on the environment.” However, the report warned, if underfunded, “photovoltaics will not impact the energy [situation]” in future times. [Solar currently generates less than one percent of the nation’s electricity.]

In perverse fashion, Dr.  Dixy Lee Ray, the chair of the Atomic Energy Commission and author of The Nation’s Energy Future, took the subpanel seriously and made sure photovoltaics received but a pittance—fulfilling her prophecy that solar would remain, in her words, “like a flea on the behind of an elephant” in America’s energy mix.

While Jimmy Carter was in office, the Federal Energy Administration’s Task Force on Solar Energy Commercialization came up with a novel way of increasing the utilization of photovoltaics. Rather than look for breakthroughs, it sought out existing government markets for solar cells at their current, 1977, price. This strategy would speedily expand production, which in turn would significantly lower the price of photovoltaics because of enhanced economies of scale. As a consequence, producers of photovoltaics could gain access to even larger markets. Greater production would also raise the learning curve of the industry—the more you make, the better your product becomes. “The primary benefit would be,” the task force stated, “to stimulate the accelerated establishment of a viable, highly competitive photovoltaic industry capable of supplying the private sector with a major source of clean, non-depletable electrical energy.”

 
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