Clean Power

Published on March 29th, 2014 | by David Baldwin


The Case For A Solar Race

March 29th, 2014 by  

Originally published in Let the Sunshine In: A Solar Power Blog.

Once upon a time, at the height of the so-called Cold War in the 1950s, the United States first became involved in something called the “Space Race” with its arch-rival, the now-defunct Soviet Union. Rocket technology had evolved dramatically during the recently-concluded World War, and in the decade afterward, both the US and the USSR had developed this to such an extent that for the first time flight beyond earth’s atmosphere became conceivable.

To the surprise of the US government – and of most Americans – it was the Soviets who got the jump on America by launching the Sputnik 1 satellite in October, 1957. Although little Sputnik was probably smaller than WALL-E’s head, the success of this crude satellite sparked a crisis in the halls of power in Washington. America of course had already inaugurated its own rocket program – the singularly ill-named Project Vanguard – but this effort had failed to launch a satellite first. Those darn Russians beat us, angry politicians of both parties cried! Whereupon the US government promptly committed many billions of (pre-inflation) dollars not only to catch up to the Soviets, but to surpass them, with a manned moon landing as the ultimate goal – a milestone the US triumphantly reached with the Apollo 11 flight nearly twelve years later, in July 1969.

This very serious and expensive competition between the two superpowers resulted not only in bragging rights for the victor, but major technological breakthroughs, many of which (the Internet, cell phones, ATMs) have had what most people would regard as a positive effect on human life, in areas far removed from the narrow realm of space travel. It has even been claimed that the Space Race helped spark the modern environmental movement: pictures of earth taken from space evoked a worldwide consciousness of both the beauty and fragility of our planet.

Knowing well the above history, this writer is amazed by the behavior of the US government and public in its response – or rather, non-response – to the swift ascendancy of so many rival countries in the area of solar power, in comparison with America’s relatively lackluster progress. Given the life-and-death importance of energy resources in the coming decades, and the vastly greater imperative (compared to that of putting a man on the moon) to develop viable sustainable sources of energy, America ought to see itself in the midst of a “Solar Crisis” far surpassing the Space Crisis of the mid-1950s. Yet, when news comes out about, say, cloudy Germany leading the world in solar, or South Africa investing over 5 billion dollars in renewable energy (mostly solar) development to end its dependence on coal, the reaction, if any, in America’s capital as well as on Main Street, is a shrug of indifference.

Where is the old competitive spirit of the Cold War years? Competition in the context of militaristic political conflicts – particularly war – seems to me invariably regrettable. But competition between nations for a technological goal may ultimately yield a positive result, if the goal itself is good. Few environmentally-aware persons would argue that a permanent transition to renewables, particularly solar, would not be a good goal for America. That’s why I’d like to call for a new Solar Race for the US, analogous to the Space Race of the ‘Fifties and ‘Sixties.

What would such a race be like? Obviously, it would mean lots and lots of federal and state funds – equaling and hopefully surpassing the superfluous subsidies currently thrown at the fossil fuel industry – to be invested both in technological development and incentives to consumers to go solar. But it would involve much more than that. A public awareness campaign would be created that would portray solar power in a worldwide context, and our national honor as dependent upon our ability to compete successfully with other nations in this arena. Making solar hip, therefore, would become a major national priority. Celebrities would be recruited to extol its virtues. Some of the excitement of the new that characterized the birth of the motorcar and of aviation in the early 20th Century (see my post on the flight of the Solar Impulse) could be experienced again, but with the knowledge that this time the result would not be traffic jams or jet fuel-polluted skies, but a much more livable planet. And the old American pioneer spirit, last seen in this country with the rise of hero astronauts like John Glenn and Neil Armstrong in the 1960s, would be revived for this campaign, including perhaps in an area (which I have previously discussed in another post) whose ultimate possibilities are as yet unknown: space-based solar power.

So what would be the goal? Obviously, Americans love to trump other countries, so “beating Germany” could provide the same satisfaction as “beating the Soviets” did after Apollo 11. But the ultimate satisfaction would be the knowledge that the US will have made itself the pacesetter in a technology that not only clearly represents the future, but one that will help to ensure that mankind has a future. So the ultimate beneficiary for such a revival of American competitiveness might well be, paradoxically, the entire earth.

However, I’m not naïve enough to believe that the will to realize this dream is going to come from the current fossil-fuel-loving political or media establishment. Rather, it must come from the grassroots. Those who are already in the solar industry, as well as those who write or read blogs like this, must step up to the plate, and help to make the ideal of a solar-powered planet a reality.

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About the Author

David Baldwin is a New York-based writer who has experience in both the corporate and nonprofit world, and who admits to a perfectly normal obsession with climate change and with solar energy's potential to help alleviate it. He blogs about solar at Let The Sunshine In.

  • Omega Centauri

    I think its tough to get this going. Maybe if we had some highly visible competition like the solar Olympics, where keeping score or gaining bragging rights became an element of national pride? The Space Race was partly motivated by military-style fear. Fear that the Russians would be able to use space to drop space-based warheads onto our heads with little warning, or otherwise exploit a technological edge for nefarious purposes. I think thats tough to do with solar (and wind, storage, ocean power ….).

    I think in terms of R&D we are doing pretty well in these areas. Deployment is a different matter that requires real capital be spent, and most importantly well connected energy incumbents (like oil and coal) to see their business interests threatened. Thats where it gets real tough, these interests can (and are) investing heavily in lobbying, PR, and disinformation campaigns. Thats what makes the political environment so tough, entrenched interests are threatened by the transformation. Space was different, it represented a business opportunity for Aerospace, and few were interests felt threateed that the new technology would ruin their livelihoods.

  • JamesWimberley

    Count me sceptical.

    One: Solar is doing fine in the US today – just look at the numbers. It’s driven by green civic consciousness (generating corporate concerns for reputation) and the simple profit motive. Both of these look more reliable for the long haul than appeals to chauvinism. Solar’s enemies are putting up a fight, but losing.

    Two: solar alone is not enough. Even if you limit the argument to electricity, you need a balanced portfolio with wind, biomass and geothermal generation to keep a reliable supply, plus a smarter grid. And sustainability requires other wedges than zero-carbon electricity: building efficiency, electrification of transport, and new technologies for steelmaking, cement, aviation and shipping. Focusing on solar is picking the easy bit.

    A chauvinist race needs an identifiable competitor. In the space age, it was the Soviet Union. Who’s the adversary in the solar race? Germany? China? Mexico? Vanuatu?

    The rest of the world does not need American “leadership”. It needs more Americans to start behaving as good citizens of the world and stewards of its bounties.

    • Matt

      James, first I agree with you; this is not a beat the Germans or China.
      Second, I disagree with you, the race is with ourselves. And it can be a national security issue. Clean polution free energy generated here in the US, not only creates jobs; it helps with world peace. Does anyone really think the access to oil, and the profits from oil have nothing to do with the Middle East problems of the last 50 years. Or that oil money wasn’t involved in our current “War on terror”? Even without climate change, there is enough data for the feds and state to call for a full court war on coal and oil. Can you throw a little friendly competition in also? NRG improvement Olympics? Don’t know. But the transition to clean would be faster if the US had a NRG plan past “Drill baby drill”. A honest statement the dirty power hurts the heath of this country (and world), and a sin tax on its use. A real push to move to better efficiency, in buildings and in transportation. For building think, carrot and stick. Tax break if net-zero or LEED platium, tax increase if you build less the silver. Raise the CAP standard faster, you can still build gas hogs just cost you. Increase gas tax. I know every hates taxes, so return it all as a even split per person, cash credit on federal return. Ok, more likely 99% because it does cost something to collect it. If you paid $0.30-0.50/kwh for coal power (closer to its true cost) instead of $0.06/kwh; tell me wind/PV/geothermal and NRG efficiency would not have much more market appeal. Would there be losers cause by correct market signals? Yes, but there would be many more winners. Would it help others in the world also? Yes, oh well unintended side effect.

      • Rick Kargaard

        I agree that higher taxes on gasoline would be a good step in most U.S. states. You currently have one of the lowest prices in the world and definitely lower than most of the developed world. You are even lower than your oil rich neighbor, Canada. The money could be used to improve infrastructure such as bridges to allow for larger, more efficient trucks such as A and B trains. Care needs to be taken not to tax where the price of essentials will be effected (especially food),to minimize the pain.

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