From the Archives: Who Owns the Sun? (1978)

It ain’t you and me.
Sun
Courtesy High Times

By Dick Bell

The battle lines over solar power are still being joined, and the struggle is a confusing array of the weak and the powerful, of shifting alliances and contradictory objectives and, most importantly, of the swirling together of two quite distinct revolutions, one technical and the other political.

Is solar simply another energy technology, to be plugged into the existing network of multi-national energy companies? Or will solar provide a wedge that social activists can use to transform society, creating a world in which people control the forces that shape their lives?

There is little doubt that we are going to see a lot of solar, despite the foot dragging of the federal Department of Energy. (DOE has 1,700 people working on nuclear power in 1978 and 38 working on solar.) California has passed a 55-percent tax credit for solar equipment, and Jerry Brown has set a 1985 goal for solar homes in California equal in number to Jimmy Carter’s goal for the whole country by that date.

The real question is no longer whether we’re going to get solar, but what kind of solar it will be and who will control it.

Social theorist Amory Lovins has been the chief prophet of those who see solar as a way of decentralizing the energy business, taking energy out of the hands of the utilities and oil companies.

Lovins’s landmark article in the October 1976 issue of Foreign Affairs, “The Road Not Taken,” laid out the energy future as a choice between two paths. The hard path of nuclear, coal, shale oil and liquefied natural gas is capital intensive, centralized and vulnerable to catastrophic failure. Lovins argued that we could meet our energy needs equally well by using the renewable energy flows from the sun combined with strict energy efficiency techniques.

Solar energy is decentralized to begin with. There are few economies of scale in collecting solar energy, so that many small collectors are just as efficient as a single large one. The dispersion of energy sources also reduces the capital cost and energy losses of centralized distribution systems like today’s electric power grids.

Lovins’s analysis points the way to an energy future in which fossil fuels and nuclear power will disappear as energy sources, replaced by an array of solar technologies: solar heating and cooling, solar thermal, biomass conversion and photovoltaics. These technologies could be deployed on a small scale, so that every community is largely energy independent, subsisting on the energy flows of its region. Utilities would exist, if at all, as a backup system, storing energy and releasing it when needed.

The corporate energy America, industry and however, the rest have of no intention of turning the country over to the small-town, backyard solar pioneers. Responding with the ferocious flexibility for which capitalism is famous, major companies have moved swiftly to bend solar to their way of doing things. GE, Westinghouse, PPG, Owens Illinois, Corning Glass, Libbey-Owens-Ford, Gulf, Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon, Mobil, GM, ITT, Alcoa, Kennecott, Grumman, Martin Marietta, Boeing and Aerospace Corporation are all dabbling in solar, making consumer products and grabbing up patents and DOE research grants.

The oil companies have invested most of their money in photovoltaics, the semiconductors that turn sunlight directly into electricity. Photovoltaic electricity is still far too expensive to compete with current electricity sources. But according to a study done for the Federal Energy Administration last year, the cost would drop dramatically if the government were to place a five-year order for $400 million worth of the devices.

The large purchase would enable manufacturers to automate what is now an extremely labor-intensive process. And as the price began to drop new markets would open up, creating more demand, more automation, still lower prices and yet more demand, until in five years photovoltaics could compete with electricity produced by nuclear or fossil fuels.

Such a development would threaten the utility monopolies, since we could all become rooftop electricity producers, but it would do wonders for oil company profits.

According to a study done by the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C., of the 47 solar patents assigned since the mid 1960s, 30 went to big corporations. A study by the Citizens’ Energy Project of fiscal year 1976 solar contracts showed that large companies received about five times more money than small businesses, $25,070,523 compared to $4,930,338. These same large companies, together with the utilities and the banks, also control the Solar Energy Research Institutes, the regional centers for solar research established by the Energy Research and Development Administration.

The real differences in outlook become even more apparent when one looks at the kinds of projects DOE has been funding. In a series of articles in Science last year, Allen Hammond and William Metz concluded that DOE’s solar research program has emphasized large central stations to produce solar electricity in some distant future and has largely ignored small solar devices for producing on-site power—an approach one critic has described as “creating solar technologies in the image of nuclear power.”

Is this all part of some giant conspiracy to keep solar power out of our hands, or is it just the way monopoly capitalism works?

According to David Morris of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Washington, it’s necessary to understand the big-solar mentality. Morris works to promote neighborhood self-sufficiency in food and energy and spends time talking with Washington bureaucrats and politicians. “I go in to one of these energy people and say ‘Small businesses are the most innovative in the country, and they’ll give you the best return for your dollars. Why don’t you fund the small solar pioneers rather than these big companies?’

‘‘They respond, if they’re candid, ‘Look, this small company is going to have to increase in size 10,000 times before it gets to be Sears or GE. If GE wants to go solar, there’ll be solar in every community in the country next year. The big companies have got the franchises, they’ve got the distribution and the factories. We want solar to happen quickly. We don’t want to futz around with small companies, except to the extent they do some good research and development work, in which case they will be bought out by the large companies.’ ”

Lee Johnson of Rain, an alternate technologies magazine, thinks corporations will have a hard time monopolizing solar heating. “I’m not too worried about who’s building flat-plate collectors right now,” Johnson says. “All these big companies with just a few plants on the coast are soon going to find that transportation costs are disadvantageous relative to local production. And these panels are so simple to build. There are so many do-it-yourself plans, and we’ve taught thousands of people how to build them in hands-on workshops. As energy costs continue to rise, local companies will become more competitive, or the big ones will have to decentralize.”

Steve Baer of Zomeworks, the geodesic-dome company, takes Johnson’s analysis one step further. Baer is the inventor of several ingenious and inexpensive solar devices, including the Drumwall, a heating system that uses a wall of recycled 55-gallon drums to collect and store the sun’s heat. “If the big companies are buying up patents, they are probably not buying up very important patents,” Baer says. “There really aren’t many. There’s just nothing in the way of people making good use of the sun. They can’t blame their problems on some patent that’s been purchased by Westinghouse or Dupont.”

Both Johnson and Baer think that the success of passive solar systems will hurt the sales of active collectors. A passive system uses the design and siting of the building to collect, store and circulate heat, without the moving parts of an active system.

“The gadgetry tendency is a misdirection of resources,” Johnson explains. “To build anything that uses active systems totally to heat a house is stupid. Passive systems cost one-half to one-third the price of active systems. The laws have been supporting a ‘solar industry,’ which means an industry making solar panels, when they could have been promoting architects and builders knowing about passive systems.”

But the propaganda for active systems is still growing, and the utilities have begun to smell a way to profit from the enthusiasm for solar. Their proposals are meeting stiff opposition from those who feel the utilities have done enough harm already.

“Monopoly has gotten us where we are, it’s not going to get us out, and it’s not going to help us to further concentrate the means of supplying the energy in their hands,” says David Norris of the Energy Task Force in New York. Norris helped plan the famous East 11th Street project that used sweat equity and government grants to restore a burned-out building, complete with solar hot water and a wind generator on the roof.

“The idea of Con Ed becoming the distributor of a given collector or installers or financiers of solar is a very disturbing one to the low-income communities where service has been so inefficient as well as so costly.”

The alternative proposed by the ETF is a community energy cooperative that would deal with energy issues on a variety of levels, from weather stripping to energy auditing to boiler maintenance and repair. And local energy cooperatives would be part of a federation that would be able to bring to bear some economic impact or to lobby against new Con Ed rate hikes.

Energy activists in California have seized on the idea of a public energy corporation and blown it up to California size in the SolarCal proposal. Sponsored by a coalition of community groups, labor unions and environmentalists, SolarCal calls for the establishment of a multibillion-dollar public energy corporation to promote the solar industry in California, by lending money to consumer and small businesses, carrying out public education campaigns, certifying solar businesses and lobbying for solar energy.

Some alternative energy proponents would like to do away with the electric utility grid, scrapping the network of power lines that link the country’s utilities together. Lee Johnson disagrees. “There was this tendency four or five years ago to become totally energy self-sufficient, to say fuck the rest of the country and go off and farm. But that doesn’t work. Besides, that lets them keep it. That grid is ours. We’re the ratepayers, we’re paying up the ass for all that stuff. We want some say over how it’s used, and the say we want is to be able to put solar and wind electricity back into the grid.”

It’s not at all clear whether people are ready to take over the grid or set up giant public solar utilities. But the enthusiasm for solar is still growing, and even labor unions have begun to recognize the job potential in a full solar program.

This enthusiasm is slowly making itself felt in official Washington, according to David Morris. “For the first time, you have some solar people, either by background or with a philosophical commitment, in DOE at the assistant-secretary level or below. And the Sun Day activities really kick ’em. They just don’t know quite how to respond.

“But it’s the states that really matter, especially California, which they’re scared crap about. Jerry Brown is going to run for the presidency on solar energy. It’s not a coincidence that DOE is talking about setting up an Office of Small Scale Technology or that Energy Secretary Schlesinger is asking what solar is, six months after California passed that 55 percent tax credit.”

Recently, however, Congress has grown increasingly sympathetic to the problems of small solar businesses. Last year’s 9 member solar coalition in Congress has ballooned to more than 60 members this year. When Carter, who said while campaigning that he favored alternate energy technologies and would only use nuclear as a last resort, shocked the solar industry this spring by introducing a budget for the next fiscal year that called for a reduction in the level of solar spending, Congress moved rapidly to increase the budget to more reasonable levels.

The coalition has introduced a wide variety of solar legislation, the most important of which would establish a federal solar fund of $5 billion to make low-cost (3 percent), longterm (up to 30 years) loans for buying solar equipment. Such a fund would give a tremendous boost to solar manufacturers, since commercial and savings banks have been reluctant to lend money for solar projects, much less on such terms.

It is still not clear what path the solar bandwagon will ultimately take. There are those who feel that the dangers of nuclear energy and liquified natural gas are so great that anything that can be done to accelerate the conversion to solar should be done. There is also a growing awareness that translating solar’s potential for decentralization into reality may be a difficult political task.

Read the full issue here.

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