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Photovoltaics Miniseries #11: Nixon’s Solargate

Here is our 11th photovoltaics miniseries entry, with the eye-catching title, “Nixon’s Solargate.”

Nixon shutterstock_194282339

This miniseries featuring physicist and author John Perlin was developed as a celebration corresponding to the UN’s 2015 Year of Light. Perlin’s book, “Let It Shine: The 6000-Year Story of Solar Energy,” is worth reading for anyone wanting to understand this world’s long history of solar energy.

For those who may have missed an episode in this miniseries, here is what has been published:

  1. Author John Perlin Celebrates the Coming Year of Light
  2. Author John Perlin & the Solar Cell 
  3. The Pathway to Today’s Solar Revolution: Discovering the Photosensitivity of Selenium 
  4. Photovoltaics Discovered in 1875: Interview with Author John Perlin
  5. Photovoltaic Dreaming: First Attempts at Commercializing PV 
  6. Einstein: The Father of Photovoltaics Part 1 
  7. Einstein: The Father of Photovoltaics – Part 2
  8. John Perlin Miniseries #8: Photovoltaics: Saved by Silicon – Part 1 
  9. Photovoltaics Miniseries #9: Saved by Silicon – Part 2 
  10. Photovoltaics Miniseries #10: World’s First Practical Solar Cell Victim to Exigencies of Cold War 

Our last episode concluded seeing the potential of solar energy taking a huge back seat to the nuclear promise.

America’s universal nuclear theology had no need for solar despite its recent resurrection as a promising power source for the future. Newsweek belittled “the sun’s diffuse radiation” as “paltry” when compared with the power of the atom. Just two months after praising the Bell solar breakthrough, the New York Times also joined the nuclear choir, predicting, “Electricity from the atom will keep industry turning and homes lighted for centuries while the energy of the sun will be available after the last atomic fuel is gone.

Which brings us forward in history to the time of then-US President Richard Nixon. Remember Watergate?

“Most everyone has heard of Watergate,” writes Perlin. “But Solargate? Here’s how it happened: The Nixon Administration had tasked the Atomic Energy Commission [AEC] to prepare a report, The Nation’s Energy Future, to be based on recommendations by the National Science Foundation [NSF]. It proposed a $10 billion budget for research and development with half going to nuclear and fusion, while the rest would be spent on coal and oil. A mere $36 million was to be allocated to PV.”

CleanTechnica: In a time of such energy budget largess for nuclear, coal, and oil, what exactly happened to solar?

Perlin: The late Dr. Barry Commoner, a distinguished scientist and strong solar advocate, expressed surprise at the smallness of monies for solar R&D. Such neglect piqued his curiosity as to why the NSF seemingly showed such little interest in the solar, especially since its scientific panel was comprised, in Commoner’s judgement, of a distinguished group of experts. He soon learned that a report, called Subpanel IX: Solar and Other Energy Sources, contained the group’s findings.

CleanTechnica: What exactly was the nature of that report: “Subpanel IX: Solar and Other Energy Sources?”

Perlin: When Commoner asked to see the report, the Nixon Administration stonewalled him, denying that such a document existed. Not believing the response truthful, Commoner enlisted the help of then-Senator James Abourezk, also a strong solar advocate. But Abourezk, got the same runaround. Eventually, a solar-energy “Deep Throat” informed the senator that a copy did exist and could be found, in of all places, the Atomic Energy Commission’s public reading room. According to Commoner, “This turned out to be a dim photocopy of a hazy carbon copy; but it brilliantly illuminated” the discrepancies between the science and politics of energy.

CleanTechnica: The Politics of energy? Please elaborate.

Perlin: Paging through Subpanel IX: Solar and Other Energy Sources, Commoner discovered that the NSF had recommended an outlay of almost six times more money than the AEC’s plan had requested for research and development of solar cells. Plus, with such an outlay of funding, the NSF had great expectations for solar electricity, predicting PV would supply more than 7% of the US electrical generation capacity by the year 2000 and the expenditure for realizing the solar option would be 16 times less than the nuclear choice.

CleanTechnica: Logic and politics didn’t mix well, did they?

Dixy Lee Ray wlt013Perlin: Correct, sadly. While the Subpanel considered the solar option more appealing because, “in contrast to problems incurred by nuclear plants, photovoltaic systems would find wide public acceptance due to their minimal impact on the environment.” However, the Subpanel warned, if under-funded, “photovoltaics will not impact the energy situation in future times.”

In a perverse way, Dr. Dixy Lee Ray, the Chair of the AEC and author of The Nation’s Energy Future took the Subpanel stud seriously and made sure solar received but a pittance, to fulfil her prophecy that solar would always remain, as she hoped, “like a flea on the behind of an elephant” in America’s energy future.

Coming next: Was President Jimmy Carter really the pro-solar president everyone believed him to be?

Image credit: Dixy Lee Ray 1976 campaign poster for Washington governor via historylink

Image credit: 1995 USA President Richard Nixon commemorative stamp via Shutterstock


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Written By

is a writer, producer, and director. Meyers was editor and site director of Green Building Elements, a contributing writer for CleanTechnica, and is founder of Green Streets MediaTrain, a communications connection and eLearning hub. As an independent producer, he's been involved in the development, production and distribution of television and distance learning programs for both the education industry and corporate sector. He also is an avid gardener and loves sustainable innovation.


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