Solar energy have been around for a very long time, and yet, decades have passed and practically not much came of it. Even though solar and renewable energy is picking up momentum, it’s history is littered with false starts and stutter steps. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), 2011 showed record-breaking numbers for U.S. solar installations. The industry’s best year ever saw demand rise by 109 percent over the previous year. With tremendous incentives and benefits for homeowners, solar panel and equipment price decline and increased awareness, the future looks bright.
But a quick glance to the history of the technology throws a long cast on the fact that we’ve been in the same situation before. In 1978, the White House Council on Environmental Quality issued this glowing statement: “Our conclusion is that with a strong national commitment to accelerated solar development and use, it should be possible to derive a quarter of U.S. energy from solar by the year 2000. For the year 2020 and beyond, it is now possible to speak hopefully, and unblushingly, of the United States becoming a solar society.” The key idea in this statement is “strong national commitment,” since timber, coal, oil, gas, and nuclear all receive strong federal support, solar needs to get the same kind of government backing, which as of yet, to this day, it did not.
The process of generating electricity directly from sunlight, known as photovoltaic (PV) effect was first observed in Paris by 19-year-old Alexandre Edmund Becquerel in 1839. Albert Einstein won his only Noble Prize for his discovery of the law of photoelectric effect, which was an integral part of future photovoltaic technology. After groundbreaking PV research at Bell Labs in the1950s, it was finally in the ’70s, when a combination of American spirit and ingenuity met simple necessity to bring modern solar technologies to the forefront as a power source. The trigger was the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 and 1974. Out of this crisis, came the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974, and then formation of Energy Research and Development Administration, (ERDA), which would in later years become the Department of Energy. The goal of ERDA was to bring together all the efforts devoted to energy research and development, including solar, under one umbrella. Or in the law’s wording to use “all energy sources to meet the needs of present and future generations… to make the nation self-sufficient in energy.” Despite the initiatives, high oil prices and fuel shortages continued to plague the United States throughout the ’70s.
In 1970, solar funding was a mere $75,000. By 1977, it had increased to $261 million. A year later, in 1978, subsidies were aimed towards renewable for the first time, including a tax credit for residential installations of solar. Still, the numbers paled in comparison to the dollars handed out to the other energy sectors, including the $787 million spent on nuclear in 1977. At the same time other nations were coming to the same conclusion regarding the necessity of alternative sources of energy. Even Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer, was on board, as the nation announced in 1977 it was building the world’s largest solar heating system.
“We had, in the Carter years, a well-developed plan to get 20 percent of nation’s energy from renewable resources by the year 2000,” Hayes says, and is confident they’d have made their mark if a series of policies had been enacted. “Unfortunately,” Hayes says, “none of those policies were ever implemented.” Hayes identifies the moment when Carter embraced the 20 percent-call, over quite a few objections, as “the high point of solar energy in the United States.”
Energy independence is something every American president campaigns on. Moving into the 1980s, the one simple truth was that the United States didn’t want to ever be in a situation of scarcity again, or have to rely on foreign sources of energy. Yet the government always decided to gut the very agency that might have actually delivered the promise of energy independence. In November 1980, America voted out Jimmy Carter, and in came Ronald Reagan. By June 1981, Dennis Hayes amn 370 gifted scientists were out of a job. Reagan’s distaste for all things solar was never more evident than by his dismantling of the solar panels Carter had placed atop the White House roof, but that display was only the beginning as the budget for solar development, along with subsidies and tax credits for the industry were slashed. With federal backing virtually wiped out overnight, young solar companies began to collapse and the industry as a whole was on the ropes.
Reducing the nation’s reliance on foreign oil and fossil fuels, in general, would have seemed to have been in the U.S.’s interests. In order for this to happen, scientists and renewable advocates pushed for the same federal backing that all other energy sources received in their years of infancy, going all the way back to timber. Instead, the Reagan administration chose to double-down on fossil fuels and keep heaping enormous amounts of taxpayers’ money in this direction. As an alternative to foreign oil, the new administration put its support behind, not renewables, but synthetic fuels.
In 1985, tax credits for solar homes were not renewed. The solar industry itself, once a billion-dollar business, had barely a pulse. Oil prices were at rock bottom, and so alternative energy was no longer a priority. Shortsightedness prevailed. The Reagan administration systematically cut all things renewable, while the budget for nuclear rose substantially. Hayes probably summed up the backwardness of the U.S. energy policy best when he penned an op-ed for the New York Times in 1981, with the hopes of creating as big a splash as he could amidst his forced resignation in 1981. He wrote, “If the oil industry cannot thrive today without subsidies, who can?”
According to a March 2012 study done by the Congressional Research Service, analysis shows that since the inception of the Department of Energy in 1978, 62.3 percent of energy technology funding went to nuclear and fossil fuels, 16.5 percent to renewables, while 14.7 was directed to conservation, and 6.6 to electric. Going back further and expanding the numbers from 1948 to 2012, funding for fossil and nuclear goes up to 74 percent, while renewables took in 12 percent during that same period.
Dave Llorens, CEO and co-founder of the solar power company One Block Off The Grid (1BOG), sees solar energy as on the verge of tipping. Backed by New Enterprise Associates, the same team behind Groupon, 1BOG gets groups of customers together in an area and sets them up with a vetted contractor to install home solar panels. 1BOG negotiates the best deals for solar panels in a particular region, and through leasing provides savings while eliminating the big upfront cost. Llorens’ customers are pleased to not only save money but to have a clean source of energy. In fact, his team’s biggest hurdle now is convincing potential customers to help themselves. Says Llorens, “Some people are like ‘It sounds too good to be true. I can save money immediately, it doesn’t cost anything, and somebody guarantees it all?’” Not only does 1BOG accomplish those things, but through the use of satellite photos, the company can also give estimates over the phone. “People just want to see the numbers — we can do that for them,” says Llorens.
Since solar energy technology became available, the obstacles have remained the same over the decades. Sadly the solutions are mostly same. It’s simply a matter of failed leadership. Spend no more, if that’s the Holy Grail; merely spend the money in the right places. Last year, solar combined with wind, and geothermal to provide only 4.7 percent of the nation’s power, still a far cry from the 20 percent said to be obtainable more than 30 years ago.