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John Perlin’s Photovoltaics Miniseries #13: Reagan Nukes Solar

We continue with the John Perlin photovoltaics miniseries interview. In this 13th post, our featured physicist, solar historian, and author follows the late 20th century fate of solar PV, moving from the office of President Jimmy Carter to that of President Ronald Reagan.

Perlin points out the future for solar energy did not become any rosier with this presidential transition. “Many in the solar field wax nostalgic for the Carter years because of the contrast to his successor Ronald Reagan,” he writes.

ronald reagan shutterstock_216888553

This series on PV is being published to provide background in support of the UN’s 2015 Year of Light. Perlin’s book, Let It Shine: The 6000-Year Story of Solar Energy, provides an excellent backgrounder on the history of solar energy. This series details much about how the industry evolved to its present-day status.

For those missing info on this miniseries, here are previously published episodes:

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

What follows is the continuation of our interview with Mr. Perlin.

CleanTechnica: We learned the fate of solar energy didn’t fare that well during the Jimmy Carter years. What followed with President Reagan?

Perlin: A letter to the President from his National Security advisor, Richard Allen, reflects the anti-solar sentiment that prevailed at that moment at the White House. He wrote to the President that he had found a book which contained “ammunition” to help Reagan in his crusade for nuclear power.

CleanTechnica: “Ammunition?” What could have been meant by that phrasing?

Perlin: The author Allen spoke of was Samuel McCracken. Three years earlier he wrote an article in the neo-con magazine, Commentary, antagonistically titled, “Solar Energy: A False Hope.” Throughout the piece McCracken carefully chose his words and phrases to push the correct buttons to arouse the ire of people like Reagan. It began contentiously, stating, “Solar power is the ideal source of energy for the Me Generation,” and then continued by claiming that its advocacy was a “feature of the New Barbarianism,” a catchphrase used by the neo-cons to vilify the counterculture movement of the 60s which people like Reagan and his henchmen hated more than the “Evil Empire” of the Soviets.

CleanTechnica: This sounds as if McCracken was dead set against any advances for renewable energy, especially when the future of nuclear energy was regarded so highly.

Perlin: Absolutely. Just to make sure his right-wing neo-con readership like Reagan and his cohorts got the message of whom they were dealing with in the solar movement, McCracken concluded his article describing the solar “energy crusade…as little more than a continuation of the political wars of a decade ago [anti-Vietnam movement] by other means…Where salvation was once to be gotten from the Revolution, now it will come from everyone’s best friend, the great and simplistic cure of all energy ills, the sun.”

McCracken’s book, adopted as the Bible by the Reagan administration, used his Commentary article as the basis for his chapter denigrating the solar choice and slashing the small outlay of funds allocated for solar by Carter.

CleanTechnica: What reaction came from those in the government who supported the idea of solar energy?

Perlin: The head of the government’s photovoltaic program, Dr. Morton Prince, lamented the consequences of the new administration’s war on solar. “I was losing all my best people,” Prince complained. The lead solar investigator from the National Science Foundation, Lloyd Herwig, analyzed the end result of the carnage: “We yelled from our offices that Japan would be doing it, Germany would be doing it instead.”

CleanTechnica: What reaction did the Reagan administration have to these alarming comments?

Perlin: The Reagan Administration could have cared less. It as dead set against any thing solar. As an example, when the document, Review of the Demonstration Program of Solar Heating and Cooling Technologies, arrived at the White House during Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, its reception foretold the new administration’s distaste for everything solar. The Department of Energy had paid the highly reputable consulting firm Arthur D. Little a quarter of million dollars to complete the study. The lead author did not consider it controversial. It outlined high expectations for solar if properly funded. “The following day,” one of the members of the staff that produced the report recalls, “word came from the Reagan team – ‘do not release this report…copies are to be destroyed…no secret printings…no discussions’. And then a threat – “If any word gets out, Arthur D. Little will not be compensated.” The staff member added, “I had never witnessed anything so brutal. There were no pretensions of free speech. It was swift and ruthless.”

Coming next: The German and Chinese governments break the solar logjam.

Image:Ronald Reagan mural, 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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