Perhaps enlightened by the specter of Fukushima and the weather brought on by burning fossil fuels, Congress could find as many ways to encourage the building of a non-carbon energy infrastructure.
By John Perlin
Truman Calls for Solar Energy
President Truman’s 1952 blue-ribbon committee, the Paley Commission, predicted in its published report Resources for the Future that America and its allies would be short of fossil fuels by 1975 and its replacement by solar energy “could make an immense contribution to the welfare of the free world.”
The report urged the development of nuclear as well, suggesting a 50-50 split in funding to develop the two alternative energy sources.
Ike Likes Nukes; Solar, Not So Much
Unfortunately for solar, Resources for the Future, came out at the end of the Truman Presidency. The Eisenhower Administration took a different tack. It began a multi-decade legacy where the national government would lavish huge sums on nuclear power while providing almost nothing to solar.
Rather than scare Americans about the catastrophic reality of nuclear warfare, Eisenhower decided to lull them into living in a world teetering toward mass destruction by giving such weapons a happy face through the introduction of the peaceful atom, which he promised would “provide abundant electrical energy [throughout] the world.” Eisenhower’s suggestion was turned into a national crusade called “Atoms for Peace” and according to the New York Times was “unquestionably the best idea of the cold war.”
Selling the peaceful atom as the world’s future energy source suddenly became America’s number one priority. Industry jumped on board, as Nobel Laureate Hannes Alfven observed, “because the government paid [all the expenses],” pledging, in the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, to make available at no cost at all “14 years and 10 billion dollars worth of government research” to the private sector “to encourage maximum industrial progress.”
GE, Other Industrial Giants Strangle Solar Innovation
There was no parallel “Solar Energy Act,” even though at that very moment Bell Telephone Laboratories had presented to the world the greatest breakthrough ever accomplished in solar energy and possibly in the entire energy field – a device called the silicon solar cell, that converted enough sunlight directly into electricity for power generation – which the New York Times told its readers “may mark the beginning of a new era, leading to the realization of one of mankind’s most cherished dreams – the harnessing of the almost limitless energy of the sun for the uses of civilization.”
Despite early enthusiasm as shown by the Times and others in the press, the government with industrial giants such as General Electric, were able to silence any long-lived societal interest in the Bell solar breakthrough, by warning, “Where Communism alone has failed, Communism plus atomic power might succeed.” And then assuring the public, “Our [America’s] progress with the atom is encouraging to all the world’s people.”
Nixon: Billions for Nuclear, A Pittance for Solar
Nixon followed closely in Eisenhower’s nuclear footsteps. In 1973 the Nixon administration had tasked the Atomic Energy Commission to publish a report, The Nation's Energy Future, allegedly based on the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) analysis of the best energy choices for America. The Nation's Energy Future proposed spending more than $4 billion for the nuclear option – almost $3 billion for the breeder reactor and nearly $1.5 billion for fusion – over a five-year period.
The same report recommended a mere $36 million for research and development of solar cells, despite the report’s scientific advisory board, the NSF, urging an outlay of seven times more in funding which, the NSF predicted, would result in solar providing “more than seven percent of the required U.S. electrical generation capacity by the year 2000” and costing the government far less than the nuclear option.
However, the NSF warned, if under-funded, “photovoltaics will not impact the energy [situation]” in future times. In perverse fashion, Dr. Dixy Lee Ray, the chair of the Atomic Energy Commission, took the NSF seriously and made sure photovoltaics received almost nothing to fulfill her prophecy that solar would remain “like a flea on the behind of an elephant” in America’s energy mix.
Reagan Crushes Solar Under Budget Knife
The energy policies of the Reagan Administration were equally lopsided when it came to the two energy choices. In a letter to the President from his national security adviser, Richard Allen, Allen told Reagan that he had found a book that contained “ammunition” to help the President in his fight for nuclear power. One of the chapters was titled, “Solar Energy: A False Hope.” Reagan assured Allen that the book “will be of assistance to me.”
Reagan slashed the meager Carter outlay for solar by two-thirds while nuclear power was the only program completely spared of any cuts during the President’s campaign to reduce federal spending. As a consequence, all the best people in the government’s photovoltaic program exited.
Nukes Feed at the Subsidy Trough
Subsequent administrations continued the policies their predecessors set in motion. The Price-Anderson Act, for example, passed in 1957 as a temporary measure, still remains on the books thanks to multiple extensions. It severely limits the liability of reactor owners should a major accident occur, reducing the cost of running nuclear facilities by billions.
Then there’s the Federal Tax Code which, since 1987, has allowed corporations to structure entities solely for the purpose of exploiting any resource that is depleteable, in which investors can profit, yet avoid any tax liability. This subsidy since its enactment has greatly helped to raise capital to grow the country’s fossil-fuel infrastructure. Why not provide solar with similar long-term assistance?
Solar Subsidies Few and Getting Less While Need Grows
The primary Federal subsidy for solar – the Solar Energy Investment Tax Credit-although in its infancy, birthed in 2006, is set to drop from 30% to 10% at the end of 2016. The tax credit has eased access to affordable capital, helping to increase solar-electric generating capacity by more than 1000% since its inception.
At least Congress could ease the stress of adjustment by structuring the reduction over several years.
Perhaps, enlightened by the specter of Fukushima and the weather possibly brought on by burning fossil fuels, Congress would sunset the Price-Anderson Act, add to the tax code now favoring fossil fuels the prefix “non” before depleteable and find as many ways to encourage the building of a non-carbon energy infrastructure as the Feds have for nuclear and fossil fuels over the past 50 plus years.
About the Author:
John Perlin has written four major books on solar energy and forestry: A Golden Thread: 2500 Years of Solar Architecture and Technology; A Forest Journey: The Story of Wood and Civilization; From Space to Earth: The Story of Solar Electricity; and the recently published, Let It Shine: The 6000 Year Story of Solar Energy. Harvard University Press has chosen A Forest Journey as one of its “One-Hundred Great Books” of all time and as “A Classic in Science and History.” He is a professor in the department of physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Currently, Mr. Perlin consults on solar projects for the university and is the campus coordinator for the California Space Grant Consortium (NASA). Find out more at Perlin's website, www.john-perlin.com.