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Published on March 10th, 2015 | by Glenn Meyers


Photovoltaics Miniseries #12: Jimmy Carter’s War Against PV

March 10th, 2015 by  

Welcome back, where we pick up on our 12th photovoltaics miniseries entry, “Jimmy Carter’s War Against PV.” Surprised? Read on.

jimmy carter shutterstock_258595034

Our miniseries features physicist and author John Perlin. The idea for this series was developed to correspond with the UN’s 2015 Year of Light. Perlin’s book, “Let It Shine: The 6000-Year Story of Solar Energy” provides an excellent background on the history of solar energy.

For those who may have missed past episodes, these dialogues have 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
  11. Photovoltaics Miniseries #11: Nixon’s Solargate

Our last episode concluded with Dr. Dixy Lee Ray, Chair of the Atomic Energy Commission and author of The Nation’s Energy Future, making certain solar received but a pittance in the way of funding, stating solar would always remain “like a flea on the behind of an elephant” in America’s nuclear energy future.

We learn solar’s future fared as poorly under President Jimmy Carter as it had under Nixon. Perlin points out that under Carter the Federal Energy Administration [FEA], the precursor to the Department of Energy, “came up with a novel way of increasing the utilization of photovoltaics. Rather than look for breakthroughs, it sought out already existing government markets for solar cells at their current 1977 price.”

CleanTechnica: What was the basis for this strategy?

Perlin; 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, they could gain access to even larger markets. Greater production would also raise the learning curve of the industry, which, translated into layman’s terms, means, “the more you make, the better your product becomes.”

CleanTechnica: Sounds like a basic business formula. Was that the case here?

Perlin: In theory. The task force stated the primary benefit would be “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 proposed a market-based approach that would jump­­-start the photovoltaic industry while enhancing the Department of Defense’s [DoD] capabilities and saving the government at least a one billion dollars.

CleanTechnica: It sounds as if the relationship between the FEA and DoD presented benefits to both entities.

Perlin: Yes. The FEA eyed the DoD’s remote power needs and pinpointed them 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 DoD 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.”

CleanTechnica: It also sounds as if our military was jumpstarting a potential PV market.

Perlin: Exactly. The proposed initiative had an earlier precedent. The military had jump-started the market for integrated circuits. In 1962 the private sector showed no interest in them, since their cost was prohibitive. The DoD, 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.

CleanTechnica: Can you provide details of what happened then?

Perlin: The FEA figured why not do the same for solar cells? It found that solar cells at their current price could economically replace generators with a capacity to produce 152 megawatts of electricity at remote sites run by the DoD. 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 its number one goal the resolution of the national energy crisis. However, the bold initiative came to naught. Carter rejected out of hand the idea to seek congressional approval. Actions such as this one led Denis Hayes, the nation’s foremost solar advocate to ask in 1978, “Will Carter join us and lead us into the solar era, or will we have to drag him along behind us?”

CleanTechnica: How did President Carter respond?

Perlin: Carter had to be dragged towards the solar era as a consequence of the 2nd Oil Crisis in 19790. To counter the second great oil shock of the 1970s, President Carter set a goal, in his famous speech on Jul 15, 1979, of solar satisfying 20% of America’s energy demand by the year 2000. But this was too little and too late as his term soon ended and Reagan became president.

Image: Storefront with banner of Plains, Georgia via Shutterstock 

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About the Author

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.

  • JamesWimberley

    Good post, bad title. Carter took one bad decision not to go for DoD procurement. Later he changed his mind and made a big but hopeless pro-solar proposal – perhaps this encouraged the Japanese in their big solar initiative in the 70s. It adds up to indifference and a missed opportunity, not war.

    • Martin

      In a lot of places there were missed opportunity’s and indifference, some of that still today, but places like japan and then Germany went ahead and became market leaders.

    • NRG4All

      Didn’t Carter put PV on the roof of the White House and then when Reagan got in office, in his prescient and infinite wisdom, took them down? [:-(

      • Bob_Wallace

        Solar water heating panels. Not PV.

  • Michael G

    Important to recall that Carter was in the Navy as a nuclear engineering officer in the early days of Adm Rickover’s early nuclear submarine program. Rickover profoundly influenced Carter. I recall those years as a young, impressionable grade school and HS student. No one doubted that nuclear energy would solve all the world’s problems. Pres. Eisenhower sent detailed plans to Iran on how to go nuclear.

    The FEA’s idea for kickstarting the nascent PV industry was excellent. The DoD is doing just that now. As the largest single consumer of electricity they have the electric power industry seriously worried.

    It demonstrates the importance of fostering innovation in as many areas as possible by creating markets to get things rolling. It is impossible to predict the future and trying to do so just screws things up. Best to acknowledge there is much we don’t know and foster all avenues.

    • jared

      The problem with pv in those days was not manufacturing inefficiencies but rather the design and functionality of the cells. Basic research was needed, not engineering fixes.
      Best model for what they did- pushing a rope. Carter wasted that money. This article claims he didn’t waste enough.

      • Michael G

        What design issues are you talking of? The PVs of the time were virtually the same as now but with lower efficiencies and higher cost. What brought down the cost was greater manufacturing scale in things like handheld calculators, mission critical DoD isolated sites, etc. I’ve got a handheld calculator 25 years old and the solar cells powering it just fine. What improved the efficiencies was simply more experience in manufacturing.

        • jared

          There is little connection between the single crystal pv cells of 20 years ago and the microcrystalline and CIGS cells used today, IMO. The higher efficiencies are not due to what I would call manufacturing experience.

          • Benjamin Nead

            Monocrystalline PV cells are still with us today and haven’t been supplanted in the commercial world yet as being the best performing. Multicrystalline and CIGS is less expensive, but lower in performance. Most CIGS also has lower lifespan than crystalline panels. As Michael G, above, correctly states, all that’s changed with monocrystalline is improved performance and lower price, the latter due to economies of scale manufacturing.

          • eveee

            True. But the cost of silicon wafer material has dropped dramatically. No matter what the efficiency or cost of manufacture, the cost of raw pure silicon from the Czochralski process was never going to make low cost solar and solar competing with microelectronics for raw material was not going to work. Electronics could always pay more for silicon.

            Solar moved towards lower quality, semi crystalline, lower costs, less waste in cutting and sawing, the Siemens process and other less energy intense bulk growth techniques, square wafers, and ultimately to 1366 technologies.


            Once solar was uncoupled from dependence on the same source of silicon as electronics, it was free to grow independently.

            The purity standard for electronics is 9 nines. The standard for solar is 6 or 7 nines.

            Fluidized bed reactor technology is one of the newer methods for silicon.

            At this time, the cost of raw silicon does not limit panel costs and in many cases, BOS is the biggest problem.

            At the same time, thin film CdTe and now perhaps in the not too distant future, advances in unforeseen areas like Perovskites, allow new inroads in areas unlike the traditional Silicon cell. If CdTe and others keep advancing, they will catch up with Silicon.


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