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.

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.”

The plan differed from the National Science Foundation approach in that it proposed providing a real market, which would substantially lower the federal investment necessary for the same expected outcome.

The task force eyed the Department of Defense’s remote power needs and pinpointed the department as a guaranteed market. Solar cells would replace only those generators whose operating and maintenance costs resulted in a per-kilowatt hour cost higher than the generators’ proposed replacements. The end result would be, according to the task force, “a significant cost benefit of about $1 billion” for the government. The Department of Defense supported the initiative, finding that “photovoltaics offer a number of advantages,” which included “potential cost and fuel savings” and their ability to “provide a highly reliable, silent power source at remote sites, in portable equipment and offshore applications.”

The proposed initiative had precedents. In 1962 the private sector showed no interest in integrated circuits, since their cost was prohibitive. The Department of Defense, seeing the benefits of the technology for itself, took on the role of sole purchaser. Through various substantial buys, it created a large enough market to initiate industrial production. In six years, output increased from 160,000 units to 120 million and the price dropped from $50 a piece to around $2.50, giving birth to the gigantic integrated-circuit industry that has spawned everything digital now in use. Why not do the same for solar cells, the energy task force asked. It found that solar cells at their then-current price could economically replace generators with a capacity to produce 152 megawatts of electricity at remote sites run by the Department of Defense. Replacement of these generators by photovoltaics would hasten the development of the industry—whose combined output of products had produced less than a megawatt that year—just as it had for integrated circuits.

Adoption of the plan seemed assured since the Carter administration had pledged to make resolution of the national energy crisis its number one goal. However, the bold initiative came to naught. Carter rejected out of hand seeking congressional action supporting the plan. Environmental leader Denis Hayes noted Carter’s ambivalence about the solar cause, asking, “Will Carter join us and lead us into the solar era, or will we have to drag him along behind us?”

The Reagan administration demonstrated an even lower regard for photovoltaics. A letter to the president from his national security adviser, Richard Allen, reflects the antisolar sentiment that prevailed at that moment in the White House. He wrote to the president that he had found a book that contained “ammunition” to help Reagan in his crusade for nuclear power. The book’s author was Samuel McCracken. Three years earlier he had written an article titled “Solar Energy: A False Hope,” published inCommentary, a neocon magazine highly popular with members of the Reagan administration.

Throughout the article McCracken carefully chose his words and phrases to push buttons that would arouse the ire of people like Reagan. It began contentiously: “Solar power is the ideal source of energy for the Me Generation,” and then continued by claiming that the advocacy of photovoltaics was a “feature of the New Barbarianism,” a catchphrase used by the neocons to vilify the counterculture movement of the 1960s, which they hated more than the “Evil Empire” ruled by the Soviets. McCracken concluded his article describing the solar “energy crusade … as little more than a continuation of the political wars of a decade ago [the anti-Vietnam movement] by other means…. Where salvation was once to be gotten from the Revolution, now it will come from everyone’s best friend, the great and simplistic cure of all energy ills, the sun.”

McCracken’s new book used his Commentary article as the basis for his chapter denigrating the solar choice. With the copy that Allen provided for the president came a one-page summary of its contents prepared by the publisher. One of the bullet points in the synopsis stated that the book “examines alternatives ( … solar) and concludes that nuclear energy is environmentally the most benign … [and] the most benign in terms of public health, the safest in terms of major accidents, and the only major source able to give us large amounts of flexible energy over a long period of time.”

Unsurprisingly, Reagan slashed the meager Carter outlay for photovoltaics by two-thirds. The head of the government’s photovoltaic program, Dr. Morton Prince, lamented the consequences of the new administration’s war on solar cells. “I was losing all my best people,” Prince complained.  The lead solar investigator from the National Science Foundation, Lloyd Herwig, analyzed the end result of the carnage: “We yelled from our offices that Japan would be doing it, Germany would be doing it instead.”

Herwig’s prediction has come to pass. Starting in 1994, the Japanese government offered a generous subsidy to encourage individuals to place solar cells on their rooftops, resulting in the placement of photovoltaic systems with a capacity of 3 kilowatts on 539 rooftops. By the time the program ended in 2004 almost 400,000 rooftops had photovoltaics. The initiative helped Japan become, by 2002, the world leader in the installation of grid-connected systems and the manufacture of solar cells. Rooftop capacity after the first year of the program totaled 1.6 megawatts. Eleven years later, more than a gigawatt (a billion watts) had been installed.

The Japanese government supported the program because of its interest in assuring energy security and in dominating the worldwide photovoltaic industry. But by 2004, Germany had become the world leader in photovoltaic installations. This number one position had nothing to do with the amount of sunshine Germany receives. For example, Germany gets about 40 percent less solar radiation throughout the year than the western United States does, and yet Germans have installed more than 30,000 megawatts’ worth of photovoltaics, compared to the approximately 4,000 megawatts’ worth that Americans have set up, most of it in California. In fact, on May 26, 2012, photovoltaic-generated electricity accounted for nearly 50 percent of Germany’s electrical supply. As Norbert Allnoch, director of the Institute of the Renewable Energy Industry in Muenster, remarked, “Never before anywhere has a country produced as much photovoltaic electricity.”

Germany’s vigor stems from strong government support for photovoltaics, which is part of a program initiated in 2000 that committed the nation “to facilitate a sustainable development of energy supply in the interest of managing global warming.” The emphasis on increasing the market for solar cells lay in the government’s belief that “in the long term, the use of solar radiation energy holds the greatest potential for providing energy supply which does not have an adverse impact on the climate.”

The Chinese government, too, via aggressive support for its photovoltaic industry, has also greatly contributed to widespread adoption of solar cells by bringing down the price of photovoltaic power through the massive production of solar modules. As one expert observed in 2012, “Things that weren’t feasible have suddenly opened up. As prices drop, you see huge markets open up.” No wonder the International Energy Agency, often biased toward fossil fuels and nuclear energy, expects 230 gigawatts of photovoltaics to be installed throughout the globe by 2017.