CleanTechnica is the #1 cleantech-focused
website
 in the world. Subscribe today!


Biomass photo-FPL-Solar-Obama

Published on July 4th, 2014 | by Guest Contributor

37

How Did US Renewable Energy Policy Get So Off Track?

Share on Google+Share on RedditShare on StumbleUponTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on FacebookPin on PinterestDigg thisShare on TumblrBuffer this pageEmail this to someone

July 4th, 2014 by
 
Energy Post

Allan Hoffman

Allan Hoffman

By Allan Hoffman

In 1978 a monumental multi-departmental study was submitted to President Carter concluding that “solar energy could make a significant contribution to U.S. energy supply by the end of this century”. The study, backed by 30 federal departments, stated that “even with today’s subsidized energy prices, many solar technologies are already economic.” Yet no action was taken and solar power and other renewable energies stagnated for over 30 years. Until now? Allan Hoffman, former senior official at the U.S. Department of Energy, who personally delivered the report to the White House back in 1978, recalls what went wrong – and what lessons the U.S. should draw if it is to avoid another failed renewables revolution.

On December 6, 1978 I personally delivered a multi-agency report to the staff of the Domestic Policy Advisor to President Carter entitled ‘Domestic Policy Review of Solar Energy: A Response Memorandum to The President of the United States’. It is popularly known as the DPR. The report had been requested by the President in a May 3, 1978 speech in Golden, Colorado, dedicating the newly formed Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI). SERI has since become the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

The DPR was the final report of the first comprehensive review by the U.S. federal government of its policies for renewable energy. It involved 30 federal departments and agencies, and at its peak this 6-month study involved the efforts of 175 senior government officials detailed to the DPR task force. As the U.S. Department of Energy’s senior representative to the DPR, and just one month after I had joined DOE as a political appointee, I was designated to head the effort by my new boss, the head of DOE’s Policy Office.

My hopes were dashed when President Clinton tried to put a price on carbon by raising gasoline prices by five cents a gallon and ran into a political firestorm. He never tried again.

The next six months were rather intense, starting with the fact that the other 29 departments and agencies didn’t trust the 30th, DOE, because of some recent history. Shortly before the DPR was announced the Carter Administration had released a National Energy Policy, also a multi-agency effort chaired by DOE. The story I was told by non-DOE staff was that DOE, at the last minute, had pulled out a draft it had prepared on its own and submitted it as the multi-agency report. As a result I inherited a problem of trust and spent much of the DPR’s first month building relationships with the non-DOE detailees to reestablish that trust. The DPR was completed in early December 1978, and delivered to the White House shortly thereafter. The full report, with appendices, was formally published in February 1979 and is available in DOE’s archives.

Point well taken

The reason I am writing about it now is that my wife recently happened to read it for the first time, and had a ‘strong’ reaction. She asked me, quite forcefully, WTF has it taken the U.S. so long to implement what we recommended more than 35 years ago? Point well taken! She also recommended that I write about this failure and “name names”. As a government retiree (as of September 30, 2012) I feel free to do that without constraint, recognizing that others may have different views on the subject. In fact, I will let the readers of this piece make up their own minds by reproducing the seven-page Executive Summary in full below before offering my views. It also serves as a piece of history that most people today are not familiar with.

Here it is.

Domestic Policy Review of Solar Energy: A Response Memorandum to The President of the United States

(February 1979, TID-22834/Dist. Category UC-13)

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 

INTRODUCTION

In your May 3, 1978, Sun Day speech, you called for a Domestic Policy Review (DPR) of solar energy. Stuart Eizenstat followed on May 16 with a memorandum defining its scope to include:

  • A thorough review of the current Federal solar programs to determine whether they, taken as a whole, represent an optimal program for bringing solar technologies into widespread commercial use on an accelerated timetable;
  • A sound analysis of the contribution which solar energy can make to U.S. and international energy demand, both in the short and longer term;
  • Recommendations for an overall solar strategy to pull together Federal, State and private efforts to accelerate the use of solar technologies.

In response to this memorandum, an interagency Solar Energy Policy Committee under the chairmanship of the Secretary of Energy was formed to conduct the review. Over 100 officials representing more than 30 executive departments and agencies have participated since early June.

This review was conducted with significant public participation. Twelve regional public forums were convened throughout the Nation during June and July to receive public comments and recommendations on the development of national solar energy policy. The response of the public was impressive, and reflected the growing support for solar energy identified by several recent opinion polls. Several thousand people attended the meetings and over 2000 individuals and organizations submitted oral or written comments.

In addition, briefings were given to members of the Domestic Policy Review by representatives of solar advocacy groups, small businesses, state and local government, public interest and consumer groups, utilities, the energy industry and solar equipment manufacturers. This public input was an important part of the Review.

In large part, themes reflected in the public comments are consistent with the findings of the DPR and the premises of the National Energy Plan. These premises include an emphasis on conservation as a cornerstone of national energy policy, awareness that energy prices should generally reflect the true replacement cost of energy, and recognition of the need to prepare for an orderly transition to an economy based on renewable energy resources. The public forum comments also reflected a deep concern that the poor and the elderly have access to affordable energy.

SUMMARY OF MAJOR FINDINGS

The results of the Domestic Policy Review can be summarized in nine major findings.

1. With appropriate private and government support, solar energy could make a significant contribution to U.S. energy supply by the end of this century. Renewable energy sources, principally biomass and hydropower, now contribute about 4.8 quads or six percent to the U.S. energy supply. Since estimates of future energy supply and demand are imprecise, three generic forecasts of possible solar use were developed. They can be distinguished most readily by the level of effort that would be required to reach them. In the Base Case, where present policies and programs continue, solar energy could displace 10-12 of a total of 95-114 quads in the year 2000 if energy prices rise to the equivalent of $25-32 per barrel of oil in 1977 dollars. A Maximum Practical effort by Federal, state and local governments could result in solar energy displacing 18 quads of conventional energy by the end of the century. Thus, if one assumes the higher future oil price scenario and this Maximum Practical effort, solar could provide about 20 percent of the nation’s energy by the year 2000. The Technical Limit of solar penetration by the year 2000, imposed primarily by the rates at which changes can be made to existing stocks of buildings and equipment, and rates at which solar techniques can be manufactured and deployed, appears to be 25-30 quads.

2. Solar energy offers numerous important advantages over competing technologies. It provides the Nation with a renewable energy source which can have far fewer detrimental environmental effects than conventional sources. To the extent that increased use of solar energy can eventually reduce U.S. dependence on expensive oil imports, it can also improve our balance of payments, alleviate associated economic problems, and contribute to national security. Widespread use of solar energy can also add diversity and flexibility to the nation’s energy supply, providing insurance against the effects of substantial energy price increases or breakdowns in other major energy systems. If oil supplies are sharply curtailed or environmental problems associated with fossil and nuclear fuels cannot be surmounted, solar systems could help reduce the possibility of major economic disruption.

In addition, because solar systems can be matched to many end-uses more effectively than centralized systems, their use can help reduce a large amount of energy waste. Although the U.S. now consumes about 76 quads of energy a year, less than 43 quads actually are used to provide energy directly in useable form. The rest in consumed in conversion, transmission and end-use losses.

3. Even with today’s subsidized energy prices, many solar technologies are already economic and can be used in a wide range of applications. Direct burning of wood has been economic in the private sector for some time, accounting for 1.3 to 1.8 quads of energy use. Combustion of solid wastes or fuels derived from solid wastes is planned for several U.S. cities. Passive solar design can significantly reduce energy use in many structures with little or no increase in building cost. Low head hydroelectric generation is currently economic at favorable sites. Solar hot water systems can compete successfully in many regions against electric resistance heating, and will compete against systems using natural gas in the future. A number of solar systems installed by individual users are cost-effective at today’s market prices. In addition, other solar technologies will become economic with further research, demonstration, and market development, and if subsidies to competing fuels are reduced or removed.

4. Limited public awareness of and confidence in solar technologies is a major barrier to accelerated solar energy use. Public testimony continually emphasized the need for more and better solar information. New programs to educate designers, builders, and potential solar users in the residential, commercial and industrial sectors are needed. Because consumers lack information, they often do not have confidence in solar products. Programs to provide reliable information to consumers, to protect them from defects in the manufacture and installation of solar equipment, and to assure competition in the solar industry can help build consumer confidence in the future.

5. Widespread use of solar energy is also hindered by Federal and state policies and market imperfections that effectively subsidize competing energy sources. These policies include Federal price controls on oil, and gas, a wide variety of direct and indirect subsidies, and utility rate structures that are based on average, rather than marginal costs. Also, the market system fails to reflect the full social benefits and costs of competing energy sources, such as the costs of air and water pollution. If solar energy were given economic parity with conventional fuels through the removal of these subsidies, its market position would be enhanced.

6. Financial barriers faced by users and small producers are among the most serious obstacles to increased solar energy use. Most solar technologies cannot compete effectively with conventional fuels at current market prices, in part because of subsidies, price controls, and average-cost utility rate structures for these conventional fuels. The tax credit provisions in the National Energy Act (NEA) will improve the economics of certain solar technologies, particularly in the residential sector.

Other barriers exist because the high initial costs of solar systems often cannot be spread over their useful lives. Industry and consumers have yet to develop experience in financing and marketing solar systems. Some of the provisions of the National Energy Act will help expand credit for residential/commercial solar systems. In addition, the new Small Business Energy Loan Act will provide credit assistance to small solar industry firms. Other existing Federal financial programs, which were created for other purposes, could also help finance solar purchases if they were directed toward this end.

7. Although the current Federal solar research, development and demonstration (RD&D) program is substantial, government funding priorities should be linked more closely with national energy goals. Solar RD&D budgets, which have totaled about $1.5 billion in the Fiscal Year (FY) 1974 to FY 1979 period, have not adequately concentrated on systems that have near-term applications and can help displace oil and gas. Electricity from large, centralized technologies has been over-emphasized while near-term technologies for the direct production of heat and fuels, community-scale applications and low-cost systems have not received adequate support. Basic research on advanced solar concepts has also been under-emphasized, limiting the long-term contribution of solar energy to the nation’s energy supply.

8. Solar energy presents the U.S. with an important opportunity to advance its foreign policy and international trade objectives. The United States can demonstrate international leadership by cooperating with other countries in the development of solar technologies, and by assisting developing nations with solar applications. Use of decentralized solar energy can be an important component of development planning in less developed counties which do not have extensive power grids, and cannot afford expensive energy supply systems. In many cases, solar may be the only energy source practically available to improve rural living conditions. Through such efforts, the U.S. could also help to develop new foreign markets for U.S. products and services, thereby increasing opportunities for employment in solar and related industries at home. And, as solar energy eventually begins to displace imported oil and natural gas, the U.S. will enjoy greater flexibility in the conduct of its foreign policy. Insofar as solar energy systems reduce the need for nuclear and petroleum fuels in the long-term, they can help reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation and international tensions arising from competition for increasingly scarce fossil fuels.

9. Although the Federal government can provide a leadership role, Federal actions alone cannot ensure wide-spread use. Many barriers to the use of solar energy, and opportunities to accelerate its use, occur at state and local levels. In order to overcome these barriers and take advantage of these opportunities, a concentrated effort at all levels of government and by large segments of the public will be required. Nevertheless, the Federal government can set a pattern of leadership and create a climate conducive to private development and use of solar energy in a competitive market. These efforts must also recognize the wide variation among solar technologies and the resulting need to tailor initiatives to specific solar applications.

This was 35 years ago and in hindsight it is clear that the powerful recommendations in our study were largely ignored. We thereby missed a great opportunity to transform our society in a way that would have enabled us to avoid many of the traumatic geopolitical, economic and environmental problems we faced in the ensuing years.

Why? Allow me to offer some personal reflections on this. My views take issue with both political parties and with vested interests in traditional energy industries. They are based on my experiences over nearly forty years in Washington, including service as Staff Scientist for the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, and many years as a senior official at the U.S. Department of Energy. Let me start with President Carter.

President Carter installs solar power at White House, 1979 (photo: AP/Harvey George)

President Carter installs solar power at White House, 1979 (photo: AP/Harvey George)

I served in the Carter Administration for nineteen months as head of the renewable energy policy division in the newly established Department of Energy. The DPR was my primary responsibility during that time and was received by a President who was favorably disposed towards renewable energy technologies. In fact he installed solar hot water heating panels on the White House roof and used the DPR as the basis of his dedication speech in April 1979. Where I take issue with his promotion of renewable energy is in his denial of a requested increase in the R&D budget for renewables, arguing that we had to balance the FY1981 budget. I accepted his argument at the time but rejected it later when the President somehow found $88 billion for a new synfuels program, probably motivated by his then poor standings in the polls. I was sufficiently upset by this development that I left DOE shortly thereafter.

Of course President Carter lost to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election and the following eight years were terrible for renewable energy, and for DOE in general. President Reagan and his aides set out to eliminate two Federal Departments – DOE1 (Energy) and DOE2 (Education), but succeeded in neither. Nevertheless, they did remove the solar panels from the White House roof and serious damage was done in those years to the renewable energy budget – it was reduced by a factor of eight! Only the determined efforts of a few dedicated DOE managers (particularly Bob San Martin, the head of the renewable electric programs) kept the programs alive. It was also during this period that oil prices took a dive to below $10 a barrel and public interest in alternative energy was diminished significantly.

These studies [attacking solar power] were misleading and required a great deal of effort to refute. I’ve always thought of them as similar in intent to the studies sponsored by the tobacco companies.

Things improved in the four years under George Bush Sr. – budgets edged up slightly and SERI was designated as a National Laboratory, NREL. The 1992 election also saw Bill Clinton elected as President and Al Gore as Vice President, and hopes were high that renewable energy R&D budgets would increase. I was now back at DOE helping to run the renewable energy programs, first as Associate Deputy Assistant Secretary, and then as Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for more than three years. While annual budgets did increase somewhat to about $300 million, I knew that this was less than required for a fully effective program (the budget covered solar, wind, hydropower, geothermal, biomass, ocean energy, energy storage, and superconductivity), which I estimated to be $450 million.

Political firestorm

Not expecting much action in a first Clinton term (there were lots of other ‘fish to fry’) I looked forward to Clinton’s second term. Of course my hopes were dashed when the President tried to put a price on carbon by raising gasoline prices by five cents a gallon and ran into a political firestorm. He never tried again. Vice President Gore was also responsible for a serious setback when he insisted that all programs aimed at reducing global warming be so labeled in the FY1996 budget request, which many of us argued against strongly.

We were unsuccessful, the Republicans won both the House and Senate in that off-year election, and the Gingrich Revolution that followed used the Gore budget identifications as a guide to reducing the renewable energy budget by 25%. This had serious consequences for NREL, which received 60 % of its operating funds from that budget, and NREL was forced to lay off 200 of its 800 staff. It was a devastating time for renewables, about which I still carry strong feelings. One of those feelings is that we had a President and Vice President who understood energy issues and the need to move toward a renewable energy future. In my opinion they should have taken more steps to put us on that path, and they didn’t. I’m still angry.

The Clinton/Gore years were followed by the Bush/Cheney years where the energy focus was on fossil fuels and nuclear power. It was a discouraging period for renewables and we lost valuable time while the rest of the world began to make significant progress in their development and deployment of renewables. We clearly lost out on the economic activity and jobs that were going to other countries as the new, clean energy industries were being developed. It was only with the coming of the Obama administration that this situation began to change, but our progress has been seriously slowed down by a dysfunctional Congress these past few years, the worst I have seen in all my years in Washington, DC.

Let me also say a word about the role of traditional energy companies in the oil, natural gas, and coal industries. Clearly their role in supplying energy would be affected by the penetration of renewable technologies, and they have reacted as one might expect. In the mid 1990s, as renewables began to emerge, the coal industry sponsored several studies that attacked the ability of renewables to provide a significant fraction of national energy needs. These studies were not accurate, even misleading, and required a great deal of effort to refute. I’ve always thought of them as similar in intent to the studies sponsored by the tobacco companies to raise doubts about the health effects of smoking and slow down regulatory activities. Modern analogs are the studies sponsored by fossil fuel companies to disprove global warming and climate change and slow down efforts to reduce dependence on carbon-based fuels.

A plague

This is not to say that fossil fuels don’t have an important role to play in our future energy supply. Renewable technologies are not ready yet to provide the large amounts of energy required to power our economy and fulfil our international responsibilities, and probably won’t be for several more decades. Nevertheless, recent studies document that renewables can provide the major share of our electrical energy requirements in 2050 if we have the will to do so and make the necessary investments (see ‘Renewable Electricity Futures Study’, NREL, June 2012). It is also true that our transportation fleets are highly dependent on petroleum-based fuels, and will be for many years until they are electrified and alternate liquid fuels are developed. Also, natural gas has always been recognized as a needed transition fuel to a renewable future. With the U.S. and other countries entering a new natural gas era with the emergence of large amounts of shale gas via fracking , and the ability of natural gas to substitute for coal in power generation and thus reduce carbon emissions, it will be an important part of our energy supply for decades to come. Unfortunately, this glut of shale gas may lead to reduced investments in renewables if national energy policies don’t take this into account.

Recent studies document that renewables can provide the major share of our electrical energy requirements in 2050 if we have the will to do so.

To sum up my views on why more hasn’t happened in the U.S. since February 1979 when the DPR was released to the public and provided an excellent framework for moving toward a renewable energy future: a plague on all houses. Too many Republicans and some Democrats have been too protective of traditional energy companies, Democrats have often failed to provide needed leadership when opportunities presented themselves, and fossil fuel companies, particularly coal companies, are generally doing what they can to protect their vested interests. However, it is also fair to recognize that several oil companies did invest resources in the early days of photovoltaics to help get things started, as Peter Varadi well documents in his newly published book about the history of PV ‘Sun Above the Horizon’ (Pan Stanford Publishers). Nevertheless, they mostly retreated from these investments when they realized that short term profits were not available, and that a long term perspective would be required.

Today, in my opinion President Obama ‘gets it’ about the promise and importance of a renewable energy future. I believe he is doing what he can to put the U.S. on that path but is facing serious opposition from a too often recalcitrant U.S. Congress. In my view Congress has an obligation to look down the road, anticipate national needs, and take positive steps to address those needs before they become crises. This is an obligation I believe recent Congresses have often not met. We can do a lot better and must if the U.S. is to derive its fair share of benefits from an emerging and inevitable clean energy industry that other countries are working hard to develop and know is the future.

Editor’s Note

The footnotes to the DPR report are available from the author. For inquiries please send a note to the editor karel.beckman@energypost.eu

Allan Hoffman keeps a weekly blog, Thoughts of Lapsed Physicist, where he writes about energy, water and related issues. This article has also been published on his blog here.

Source: Energy Post. Reproduced with permission.

Keep up to date with all the hottest cleantech news by subscribing to our (free) cleantech newsletter, or keep an eye on sector-specific news by getting our (also free) solar energy newsletter, electric vehicle newsletter, or wind energy newsletter.

Print Friendly

Share on Google+Share on RedditShare on StumbleUponTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on FacebookPin on PinterestDigg thisShare on TumblrBuffer this pageEmail this to someone

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


About the Author

is many, many people. We publish a number of guest posts from experts in a large variety of fields. This is our contributor account for those special people. :D



  • Buckywunder

    While I am sympathetic to the author’s version of events and am myself an advocate for the renewable energy industry as a whole, his summary varies greatly from Barry Commoner’s “The Politics of Energy” (1979) which was a blow-by-blow account of President Carter’s Energy Plan (1977) and an analysis of its weaknesses at that time.

    The timeline that Commoner reports shows that while the initial reaction to the plan was very positive, by the time it came back out as an actual congressional bill that it had been completely transformed and was barely recognizable in 1978.

    What needs mentioning, of course, is that amongst President Carter’s numerous experiences leading up to his political career is that he attended nuclear power school (as part of the U.S. Navy, if memory serves), but never finished due to family issues. But it became part of his political persona that he had nuclear bona fides.

    It was only upon the Three-Mile Island disaster happening that the Carter administration — and the general public as a whole — backed off of nuclear power as a serious energy option for the future. And this has never really changed since that time.

    Commoner’s two biggest criticisms of the Energy Plan was that it actually prioritized nuclear power over solar (wind was rarely discussed at the time) and that the plan called for natural gas deregulation. Those two proposals don’t sound particularly out-of-step for its time.

    Barry Commoner was, of course, the leading environmental expert of this period. He proposed a full-throttle approach to hitting solar power development using a “windfall profits tax” on fossil fuel companies (ah, yes, those were the days where such a term was actually debated as national policy) to drive the technology through widespread adaptation in places that made sense as cost-effectively as possible to help the transition to a renewable energy-driven future.

    Of course, Commoner became so disenchanted with the Carter administration that he ran for President in 1980 (little remembered after Carter, Reagan and John Anderson, independent candidate) on the Citizens Party ticket. His primary platform was solar power adoption as described above.

    As the article notes, Ronald Reagan won the 1980 election and the rest is history (written by the winners)…

    • Bob_Wallace

      Remember, in addition to his Three Mile Island experience, Jimmy Carter was part of the team that cleaned up the Chalk River reactor meltdown.

      He was one of the ‘jumpers’ that helped remove the damaged fuel rods.

      “Carter biographer Peter Bourne, a close friend and adviser to Carter, believes the Chalk River experience had a lasting impact on the president, influencing him when he had to confront nuclear issues while leading the western alliance.

      “My sense is that up until that point in his career, (Carter) had approached nuclear energy and nuclear physics in a very scientific and dispassionate way,” he told me in a separate interview.

      “The Chalk River experience made him realize the awesome and potentially very destructive power he was dealing with. It gave him a true respect for both the benefits but also the devastatingly destructive effect nuclear energy could have. I believe this emotional recognition of the true nature of the power mankind had unleashed informed his decisions as president, not just in terms of having his finger on the nuclear button, but in his decision not to pursue the development of the neutron bomb as a weapon.””

      http://www.cnn.com/2011/OPINION/04/05/milnes.carter.nuclear/

      And, one should point out, the US had largely backed away from nuclear builds prior to the TMI meltdown. It had become obvious that the price of nuclear energy was too high.

      1974 was the last year of large nuclear plant orders. New nuclear orders ceased in 1977. Many of the reactors ordered in the mid-1970s were abandoned during construction due to their high cost.

      The TMI meltdown occurred two years later in 1979.

      http://www.vermontlaw.edu/Documents/Cooper%20Report%20on%20Nuclear%20Economics%20FINAL%5B1%5D.pdf

  • http://www.shapeways.com/shops/greendimension Tony Reyes

    This is an interesting story from a historical perspective but I don’t believe it shows a tragic, missed opportunity from our former leaders. Technology follows natural development and deployment curves that seem little affected by what humans do. Pushing back against solar PV for example drives innovation in cost and efficiency which speeds up PV’s ability to stand on its own with fewer subsidies than fossil fuels. It’s almost like technology development has a mind of its own and we are just witnessing and riding the wave into the future.

  • John Ihle

    Wow. Really? Nothing new in this article, imo. Special interests and business as usual, and we have a somewhat apathetic country. Unfortunately. Democrats and Republicans both, especially at the national level lack leadership and vision and most voters vote because because……..
    All progress isn’t necessarily made in Washington, D.C. but at the local levels where local politicians seem to be more vulnerable and accessible, but perhaps, at times, are lacking in knowing the economics which can or may more positively affect their communities. So I think educating and a more effective marketing campaign will be important and I think that is happening.
    And financing RE rules need to change and adapt to be more inclusive. If, back in the late 70′s, 80′s – to currently financing rules would’ve been more inclusive I think the RE industry would’ve grown much faster. Congressman Rangel’s, and his staff’s position on the PTC (for wind), for example, was wrong.
    But the worm has turned. Climate change and the simple economic benefits of distributed solar and bulk wind, and I believe, economical storage at some point “soon”, is making people sit up and notice. Especially when considering most of the coal fired plants in the U.S. are antiquated and are getting more expensive to run. And rates matter.

  • mds

    ” I obviously believe that future is largely powered by renewable energy,
    and devoted the bulk of my professional career to helping create a
    foundation for that future.”
    Thank you Mr. Hoffman! Good on ya!

    “I believe is lacking in the U.S. Is a national energy policy”
    The transition is already happening without this. It would be nice, but “policy” does not lead as well as simple economics. At this point, the improving economics of Solar PV, Wind, Storage, and EVs/PHEVs will increasingly be driving policy. If congress can’t agree on the obvious then they better get out of the way.

    “We renewable energy advocates must not overpromise”
    Pretty hard to over-promise at this point. Solar PV panels are clearly going to drop below 50c/Wp. They are close now. Wind is getting super cheap and low-cost storage is coming. Too cheap to meter? No, but the most economically sensible alternative in many areas, Yes! As I was just writing to somebody else, don’t forget that too much pessimism (or too much of a conservative and careful position) is also no helpful. Continued horn blowing to celebrate the progress that has been made is important. We now have the high ground, economically speaking, and should lay claim to this loudly.

    “long term carbon tax”
    Yeh, good luck with that. Again, the existing economics are delivering, and this will increasingly be the case. Arguing for a carbon tax is a waste of breath.

    “perhaps enable Republicans and Democrats to agree on something”
    This is already beginning to happen. Some republicans in the mid-west have stepped up in favor of wind. There are some who have actually weighed in for solar …and one who actually admits AGW is a problem. The republican sell out to the large fossil fuel companies (and let’s be fair this includes a number of democrats too) will be solve by the same change in economic advantage. The Tipping Point has already occurred. Each year that passed will now put the fossil fuel companies at a greater disadvantage and successful renewables companies at a greater advantage. Rats always flee a sinking ship. They have to. Some will drown anyway. Good! Speak out and make them face the music.

    Australia is an interesting harbinger. I can’t wait for Tony Abbott’s re-election bid. I wonder how his, and his cronies, off-shore accounts are doing?

    …now, if we could just get back to real capitalism and defeat the elitist rule of moneyed individuals and large corporations …then maybe we could avoid these stupid policies like “drill-baby-drill” …and $2 trillion to protect unneeded oil in the Middle East. A return to free and fair news reporting, by reforming news ownership law, would also be nice. As you said: “Hope springs eternal.”

    regards, mike

    Good news is that renewables have flourished because of their arrogance and ignorance …and now it is too late to stop them.

  • mds

    “Renewable technologies are not ready yet to provide the large amounts of
    energy required to power our economy and fulfill our international
    responsibilities, and probably won’t be for several more decades.”
    Wait, what did you just say?! Sorry, but that ain’t true. Renewable technologies are ready right now! You are not keeping up if you believe otherwise.

    “Nevertheless, recent studies document that renewables can provide the
    major share of our electrical energy requirements in 2050 if we have the
    will to do so and make the necessary investments (see ‘Renewable Electricity Futures Study’, NREL, June 2012).”
    Yeh, sorry, but Solar PV, Wind, Storage, and EVs/PHEVs will be dominating before 2050 no matter what the fossil fuels try to do to stop them. We’re talking about the evolution of disruptively better technologies and the technological horse is already out of the barn.
    A recent study by a group hired by the Abbott government in Australia has pointed out Solar PV will be adopted MORE RAPIDLY with Abbott’s anti-solar policies than it will without. Why? …because the cost of grid power will go up more rapidly under their policies …making Solar PV an even more attractive alternative. Go ahead, try to legislate that people must pay more to get less. See what happens to you.

    • Matt

      I wonder if by that statement “not ready yet” he means they can’t be deployed fast enough.

  • Bram Bertels

    TL; DR? Or at least a summary on something that big!

  • philofthefuture

    Here are the facts, solar in Carters time was a joke. At about $15/W who the hell was going to buy it? In today’s dollars that’s over $30/W yet most can’t even afford it today at 60 cents/W. I got sucked in myself since I lived in California at the time but one look at the price and that was that. It wasn’t until three years ago that the economics changed and I could get my first 10K.
    Unless I’m mistaken Carter put solar hot water, not PV on the white house, the above picture seems to confirm that. Those panels were notorious for leaking.
    Bush put 10KW of actual solar PV on the White House in 2003, (I’m using the same inverter company), and removed the $3K limit on the 30% tax credit. Bush was also big on hydrogen and EV’s. It was actually Obama that slow rolled hydrogen to place more emphasis on EV’s.

    • Benjamin Nead

      Bush the 2nd was NOT big on EVs. His administration sued the California Air Resources Board to block implementation of zero emissions vehicle legislation and, thus, severely handicapped EV adoption at a critical historical juncture . . .

      http://www.e2.org/ext/document.jsp?docId=1043

      Hydrogen is clean at the tailpipe but dirty during manufacture (ie: steam methane reformation) and, until – or if – solar PV electrolysis can become economically viable, will remain so. The first FCV rollout of 2003 will forever be associated with a petro-industy-funded bait-and-switch to usurp EVs and, unfortunately, this will continue to be a political black mark on the technology, even if FCVs eventually prove to be both cost effective and environmentally sound someday.

      But if there’s one particularly villainous administration we can point to as being the largest enemy to renewable energy – and so many other things relevant and decent to our lives over the past 40 years – it would have to be the one led by Ronald Reagan . . . a B-grade cowboy movie actor suffering from chronic dementia and Cold War paranoia who managed to bamboozle this country into electing him twice. We’d be in much better shape today on so many levels had he simply continued making Bedtime For Bonzo sequels.

      • philofthefuture

        Bush sued because it is disruptive to have dozens of different regulations state to state. In the end it made no difference one way or the other.
        FCV’s go on sale late this year the world over, Toyota’s go on sale here next year. Hydrogen is the future, the EU and various other countries will make that happen, California and Texas will make it happen here. To be sure it will take 25-50 years to transition, like it or not technology takes time to mature. It took solar half a century to mature.
        Your character assignation renders your opinion irrelevant. Reagan won his second election by the largest landslide in history, carrying 49 states. He had no cold war paranoia, he won it by burying the Russians, something they claimed they’d do to us. Since you hate success and accomplishment I’m guessing you are a progressive.
        More people believe Obama is the worst since WW2, even worse than Bush 2, Reagan didn’t come close.

        • Bob_Wallace

          It will take a technological breakthrough to make hydrogen the future.
          Even if we are stupid enough to use natural gas as our hydrogen source in the short term we can’t do that for long. NG supplies are finite and very limited. Prices will rise and it will be as expensive, or more, to drive with NG H2 as with gasoline/diesel.

          It takes 2x as much electricity to drive a mile in a H2 FCEV than in an EV. People aren’t going to pay more than the have to in order to drive.

          Hydrogen looked promising when batteries were much more expensive, but that is no longer the case. H2 is nothing but a storage medium like batteries, and won’t win the financial race.

          • philofthefuture

            Again, Toyota FCV goes on sale in the US next year. I guess you got your breakthrough. Projections for H2 are about half the current price of gas.

            You can’t even go 100 mi in an EV without mortgaging your kids to pay for the battery pack and waiting till you’re eligible for social security for the batteries to charge. :<)
            Yes, H2 is a storage medium just like gas. It's also as convenient, filling the tank in 5 minutes and going 350-400 miles on a tank.

            I have nothing against EV's, my next car will likely be an EV as a secondary car, but they have a long way to go to be viable as the primary car. FCV's will come out of the gate as primary. The only issue with FCV's will be filling stations.

            Not that that's a small issue by any means, but that can easily be solved with self contained units. There are already trailer sized units that install in a day and charge up in another, making the time from arrival to servicing customers as little as 48 hours.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Currently H2 comes from natural gas. That is not acceptable. It still results in the addition of carbon into our atmosphere.

            Batteries are on track to increase in capacity and fall in price so that a 200 mile range EV will be available. If that doesn’t happen then we may have to fall back on H2 FCEVs and pay more per mile to drive. H2 FCEVs with the hydrogen coming from cracked water isn’t a bad option, it’s just not likely to be the cheapest.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Reagan committed a near-treasonous act by negotiating with Iran to keep US citizens imprisoned in order to help him get elected.

          He committed a crime and dealt with terrorists by selling arms to Iran then compounded that illegal act by using the money to support right wing militias in Central America.

          Reagan spent the US into debt by overspending for the military when his intelligence people were telling him that extra spending was not needed, that the Soviet Union was already badly over extended and collapsing.

          Reagan did so much damage to the United States that we’ll still be repairing a decade from now.

          • philofthefuture

            Put away the tin foil hat and admit Carter was the worst president ever till Obama.
            Obama committed illegal acts by using the executive branch to target his political enemies.
            We will never recover from what Obama has done to us.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Phil, you’re simply lying.

            You should be ashamed of yourself for such a public display of dishonesty.

          • A Real Libertarian
        • Benjamin Nead

          Well . . . there you go again. :-0

          Isn’t so-called state’s rights one of the great tenants of modern conservatism? Why, then, would it be so disruptive to have differing regulations on EV rollout from state to state?

          So, as long as we’re “going national” and this is the new conservative mantra (“keeping government out of our lives” just doesn’t cut it any longer, I suppose,) then let’s finally legalize gay marriage and recreational marijuana from the top down, instead of dragging it out with state-by-state votes towards the same inevitable end game. And yes, philo, I’m a progressive. I’m afraid that would, by definition, make you a regressive. Or is that “Reagressive?”

          Reagressives get all warm and fuzzy with the concept of balanced budgets, but conveniently forget that Reagan tripled the national debt with his massive defense buildup. I’m glad his widow didn’t insist his portrait be immortalized on our currency. Which of the founding fathers would you bump from our coins and bills to make way for the Gipper? The only solution I could think of would be having him on an honest-to-god three dollar bill.

          As long as we’re projecting 25 to 50 year into the future, I think you’ll find that history will look on the Reagan years very poorly. He had an accident of history handed to him on a silver platter and promptly had an aid send it out to be bronzed: several older Soviet leaders dying off in quick succession at the beginning of his first term and then finally being greeted with the first one ever who had a clear thought process in the form of Mikhail Gorbachev. The two of them could have had a real peace deal years before the Iron Curtain fell, had Reagan not bumbled around and wasted time with his beloved “Star Wars” SDI toys.

          And, yes, we could have had affordable solar PV decades before it happened, had all renewable energy research grants stayed in place during the Reagan years and not get diverted to the Strategic Defense Initiative pipe dream. We now know that the Soviet Union was going to collapse under it’s own weight and the wasteful US defense buildup of the 1980s would have made little difference.

          • philofthefuture

            Thanks for the humor, people take life so seriously!
            Boy I wish everything was black and white, unfortunately it isn’t. I’m not defending Bush, just mentioning the reasoning. CA in fact does cut it’s own swath on pollution, green energy, etc.
            I am actually libertarian/objectivist and have no problem with gay marriage or legalizing drugs. My state did legalize pot and I voted for it. The best way to decrease gun violence is get the illegal money out of drugs, not more gun control.
            Actually most progressives are regressive, they keep regurgitating 50′s style socialism and union thuggery. It was Obama that cut NASA and DOD, the source of most all government research success stories.
            If I owe you a dollar and borrow two more I’ve tripled the debt. If I owe you a thousand and borrow two more I’ve also tripled the debt, are they equivalent? Don’t think so, there is debt and there is DEBT. :<)
            And you know the Soviets were going to collapse because?

          • Benjamin Nead

            Yes, it’s true, phil, that we – and I have to include myself – shouldn’t always paint things in stark black and white. Thanks for explaining yourself in greater detail.

            I do have to agree with the author of this article, though, on his premise that Republican administrations have treated environment issues and clean energy technology far more poorly over the past 40 years than Democratic ones. Yet there is also blame to be deposited on the doorsteps of key Democratic ones who could have acted with greater vigor.

            As for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the simplified revisionist history that is often told (ie: it was all Ronnie’s and Maggie’s doing,) I’ll advance this somewhat detailed and nuanced view of those times . . .

            http://www.arcaneknowledge.org/histpoli/soviet.htm

            It’s also well documented history that advanced battery, solar PV – and, yes, even research in hydrogen fuel cells that you see such promise in – that got off the ground in the late 70s was essentially trashed by Reagan in the early 80s. Largely forgotten is the fact that Exxon – of all unlikely companies – did much groundbreaking early lithium battery research during the Carter years, but had to completely abandoned it when short term economic gains took a front seat and government research grants in those fields suddenly dried up all at about the same time. Assets were quickly sold off to the highest bidders and much of the knowledge accrued then eventually ended up in the hands of Sony. A fascinating account of all this and more can be found in Seth Fletcher’s 2011 book, Bottled Lightning . . .

            http://www.amazon.com/Bottled-Lightning-Superbatteries-Electric-Lithium/dp/0809030535

            As someone who grew up watching the Space Race with immense enthusiasm, it pained me to see it cut as much as it was during the Obama years. But, like much of the more pointed military buildup of the the 1950s and 60s, getting manned orbital rendezvous and Lunar ascent accomplished was basically a Cold War endeavor (ie: let’s beat the Russians to the Moon.)

            And, yes, the technology we got from it – superconductors, computers, etc. – was priceless. We threw a lots of money at it and made it happen in just a few short years instead of letting it roll out over decades (sorry, but this gives further credence to the argument that affordable solar could have been here far sooner had it not been effectively killed off for 8 years beginning in 1981.)

            It’s now possible to make the next series of technological advances without always heading skyward with people aboard (especially if low Earth orbit is the only real destination, as it has been since the mid 1970s) and most of what is worth exploring in the way of far off worlds can be done robotically . . . at least for now. It’s less romantic, but far more practical and affordable.

            As for military spending translating to technological advances for the rest of mankind: yes, it’s a time honored way of doing it and there are centuries worth of bloody conflicts to prove it. But at what cost to civilization at large?

            One good thing that Bush 2 did (and, yes, you’ve probably already figured out that I’m no great fan for so many other infractions) was sign ARPA-E into existence . . .

            http://arpa-e.energy.gov/

            . . . but it didn’t really get going until the Obama years.

          • A Real Libertarian

            The two of them could have had a real peace deal years before the Iron Curtain fell, had Reagan not bumbled around and wasted time with his beloved “Star Wars” SDI toys.

            Or if Carter’s grain embargo was still in effect.

    • mds

      “yet most can’t even afford it today at 60 cents/W”
      Ah, no, that’s an exaggeration. Leasing and loans make it affordable to just about anyone. Most Solar PV is now being installed by the middle-class, some of the ones who need the energy savings. Solar PV is now growing without subsidies in some places. The installation cost remains high in the USA, but it is coming down as Solar PV becomes more widely used.

      • philofthefuture

        I am comparing apples to apples, leasing now compared to buying back then is not a valid construct. My statement still stands, solar was a joke in Carter’s time.

        • Bob_Wallace

          A joke? No. Solar panels worked very well in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But prices were very high.

          Had we not reversed course when Reagan took office we might have brought down the cost of solar to affordable 20 years sooner and be in much better shape today.

          The US had a mini-Dark Ages thanks to the regressive thinking of Reagan and his crowd.

          • philofthefuture

            Yes a joke. Tesla is a great ride, but it would be a joke to say they were affordable to the average driver. Of course solar worked great back then, that doesn’t mean the average person could use it.
            I’ve had a career in electronics, Reagan had nothing to do with solar issues. The basic P/N junction has not changed since it was discovered. What has changed and made solar affordable was material science.
            It’s a complete lie that we could have advanced technology even one year, let alone 20. The fact is, material science already had a fantastic driver, integrated circuits. That was moving as fast as was scientifically possible because of memory, PC’s, laptops, etc. and solar got a free ride on that. Adding solar would have had no impact.
            We are in a mini dark age now because of Obama and his crowd.

          • Bob_Wallace

            What made solar affordable was economy of scale. We can thank Spain and Germany for doing the heavy lifting that took solar from being very expensive to quite affordable.

            The US should have done that work decades ago. But, no, we were told to laugh at renewable energy and turn to fossil fuels.

          • philofthefuture

            Sorry, it needs to be somewhat affordable before economy of scale can kick in. Solar progress tracked integrated circuit progress, with larger ingots, thinner wafers, more automated assembly lines, etc. Technology was already moving as fast as it could due to IC’s, it wouldn’t move any faster for PV, it’s the same technology.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Oh, come on Phil. You’re just making stuff up. And I ain’t buying.

            If there had been a significant governmental push for solar we would have taken the 12+% technology of the time and started turning it into an industry. We’d have done what we waited later to do, to find ways to drop costs via things like slicing thinner and building more processing plants.

        • Bob_Wallace

          You can make that statement, but you’re wrong.

          Solar panels worked. What was needed was government action to bring down costs.

          The solar water heaters that Carter put on the White House worked. There were some minor leaking problems, but that’s just Plumbing 101.

          Reagan did amazing amounts of damage to our country and the world. A good president would have supported renewable energy and electric cars. But, no, we led backwards.

          • philofthefuture

            Of course solar panels worked. Government is not omnipotent and cannot rewrite the laws of physics. It was materials science that made solar viable and materials science already had a major driver, integrated circuits. Adding solar would have changed nothing, materials science was already moving as fast as it could.
            We had phones and radio in the 50′s, does that mean ‘if only’ we could have had a viable cell phone back then? Of course not, government or no government.

          • Bob_Wallace

            During Carter’s term single crystal silicon solar panels efficiency was already above 12%. The technology was there.

            The laws of physics were not standing in our way.

          • philofthefuture

            As I said, the basic P/N junction has not changed, it’s materials science that has made IC’s, PC’s cell phones, and PV viable and affordable. It’s not the technology of making it work, it’s the technology of making it cheap.

        • mds

          I don’t agree. Your statement implies that many cannot afford solar today at 60c/W and that is false. I think it is you who are comparing apples to oranges.

          “Again, most can’t afford to buy a system where they get ALL the benefits.”
          OK, now you are hedging on what you said before. That statement is very different from the one above. Most cannot afford to buy a car with ALL the benefits. That does not mean the same as: most cannot afford to buy a car. Very, very obviously.

          btw That statement does knock solar …big time. The biggest argument for solar PV right now is the fact it is cost effective for many …and getting more so.

    • mds

      btw Benjamin Nead is correct. Bush funded hydrogen to distract the US public from EVs which are still closer to unsubsidized economic viability.
      Obama has done a great deal to help deliver lower-cost EVs/PHEVs and lower-cost Solar PV in the US. Anyone saying Bush did more than Obama for clean transportation or renewable energy is off their nut.

      • mds

        Interesting. You laud Bush for pushing H2 above, when electrolysis is still not economical, a fundamental technological hurdle. …but you criticize others for pushing Solar PV, which has become economically viable on its’ own largely due to economies of scale and incremental improvements …and a lot of that has been due to market subsidies …Japan 1st, then Germany, now China, Japan (again), and the US.

        You have the situation exactly backwards …philofthepast.
        Are you representing the fossil fuel companies here? …or are you just clueless?

  • JamesWimberley

    Interesting that the scorched-earth opposition to solar power antedated the emergence of global warming as a scientific consensus and policy issue, and hence of climate denialism. This timeline confirms the strong hypothesis that denialism is an ideological front campaign for a pre-existing hostility to sustainable energy motivated simply by money.

    What influence did the stillborn US initiatives have on the more successful German ones led by Hermann Scheer and Hans-Josef Fell? The Feed-in Tariff Act was passed in 1991, the Renewable Energy Act in 2000.

Back to Top ↑