MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
SOLAR REVOLUTION? 1979
"Why aren't we using solar energy here in America?" I have been asked whenever I've spoken about solar electricity in the developing world, where it is the only source of power for millions of people with no access to electricity. The answer I gave from 1990 to 2005 was simple: "Because we already have electricity and solar is still expensive."
That answer is different today. We are using solar, as this book explains, but not as much as we could be. Whether you know it or not, we will have a solar-powered future, if you include all renewable energy sources that claim the sun as their progenitor. Everyone knows the sun will be with us for a very long time, while fossil fuels are on the way out, so we will use solar energy because we, as planetary citizens, have no choice.
It has been forty years since Germany's rocket engineer and America's space pioneer Wernher von Braun said in Paris at the world's first global solar conference, titled The Sun in the Service of Mankind, "I believe we are at the dawn of a new age, one which might be called ‘the solar age.'"
This is a book for doers and dreamers. It is a personal narrative about real people doing real things, not a science text, a policy treatise, or an academic analysis of energy, technology, or political issues. It is not a technical or "how to" handbook. I'm not going to pronounce on what we "must do" or "should do" but will explain what people are doing around the world and in the United States. You will meet some of the people among the millions who have chosen to put the sun at their service, from those in villages in Africa to suburban America, from rural China to Google's campus, from thousands of industrial rooftops to America's huge solar farms.
Sun Power is a practical manifesto on how we can, and are, changing the world with solar photovoltaics, an unappealing word for an elegant technology. Solar photovoltaics (PV) has been handicapped by this name from the beginning. I prefer "solarelectric" (like "hydroelectric," one word) to describe solar power generated by photovoltaic technology that converts sunlight directly into electricity. "Solar power" is the common term today, "PV" for short. I once heard a government official at the dedication of the University of Maryland's solar-powered race car call it "photogalactic." Maybe it's more galactic than voltaic, since the technology does seem out of this world.
Solar energy, the world's fastest-growing industry, is generally a boring subject. But getting and using free energy from the sun is exciting and, if humanity is to survive, ultimately necessary. The first part of the book is about bringing solar power to people who have no access to electricity. The second part is about how America is using solar power here at home and how we are able to save money while saving the planet and how America is catching up with Europe, where the solar revolution took off at the dawn of the new millennium.
Sun Power will introduce you to people who never benefited from the modern age, who never had electricity, but who have been the solar power pioneers who were the first to light their homes with the technology that we will all be using in the future. You will learn about a nonprofit promoter of solar in more than a dozen developing countries and about its spin-off, a commercial venture that has sold and installed over 150,000 solarelectric systems in India. Finally, the book tells the story of my last solar adventure as a "serial entrepreneur" and how hundreds of American entrepreneurial start-ups are "saving the world one rooftop at a time." And one "solar farm," "solar garden," and multimegawatt solar power plant at a time. You will read about the enormous opportunities in solar and how dozens of global corporations have entered the clean energy business.
The book reflects the need to focus on hope, a commodity that seems in increasingly short supply these days as we are faced with "resource wars" and the "clash of civilizations." The lethal mix of oil, Islam, and Israel renders the world a more unstable and frightening place than it has ever been. The hope is found in the delight expressed in a child's eyes as she flips a light switch in her family's wattle-and-daub home and, for the first time, watches an electric light come on. The hope is represented by the fact that this family was able to purchase their solarelectric installation on credit and that for the first time ever their world did not go dark at 6:00 P.M., as it does year-round in the equatorial latitudes. The hope is in their empowerment, and ours.
Clean energy solutions are already working in a bigger way for the whole of humanity than I could ever have imagined ten years ago. While the West fights its wars over oil, humble farmers in developing countries, along with American and European homeowners and thousands of companies and hundreds of utilities worldwide, are putting the solar solution to work. There is hope in knowing that the solar power business is growing at 80 percent a year, providing untold opportunities for a new generation of entrepreneurs.
You don't need to know or care about how this technology works, any more than you need to understand the principles of a liquid crystal display or LED screen to turn on and watch a television. You needn't be able to tell photons from electrons to appreciate the attraction of solar energy. It does not take technical knowledge to be a sun worshipper. You do need to know, if you haven't heard already, that enough energy from the sun falls on the earth in fifteen minutes to power the world for a year.
For the history of solar power and a layman's discussion of technology, I refer the reader to Appendix 1, "Solar Tech Simplified."
A portion of this book first appeared in 2005 under the title Chasing the Sun: Solar Adventures Around the World. It told the story of how a small group of "unrealistic" and perhaps "unreasonable" activists and entrepreneurs turned their vision into the reality of a half million people getting their household energy from the sun. At the time it begged the question, "If poor people in the developing world can afford to use solar electricity, why can't we?" That is our challenge.
* * *
It seems like a dream now, the halcyon days of the 1950s, when I was growing up during a time of innocence in a world full of promise, without cynicism or irony. The bright future lay before me, around the corner, capturing my imagination. There were no economic worries in the air of postwar America, no shortages of anything. To a high school student in a small Ohio town, whose father's metallurgical engineering job paid for a large white house on three acres, a new '57 Chevy, and a second car for his mother, who didn't need to work, it was the best of times.
I was born in 1943, at the beginning of the baby boom, when hundreds of thousands of soldiers left their wives (soon-to-be mothers) behind as they shipped off to war. The cultural icons of the boomer generation—among them, Bob Dylan (born 1941), Paul McCartney (1942), Mick Jagger (1943), and Jim Morrison (1943)—defined the zeitgeist as one of fun fun fun, wild rebellion, and indignant protest. None of us was to have a normal life.
It wasn't until I was in high school that I learned we'd won World War II by dropping two nuclear bombs on Japanese industrial cities, obliterating them and some two hundred thousand of their inhabitants. By this time, Russia had the bomb as well. I still remember bicycling six miles to town to buy an issue of Mad magazine, the cover of which showed planet Earth with big chunks blown out of it as Russia and the United States lobbed ever-larger intercontinental ballistic missiles back and forth at each other. Ha ha.
However, the threat of nuclear missiles was offset by President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace program, which pumped billions of government dollars into building the first nuclear power plants. Soon, it was said, we would have power "too cheap to meter." You just needed a little uranium 235 and some plutonium and you'd have all the power you'd ever need, for ever and ever.
This seemed too good to be true, even to a tenth grader, so I wrote to the Atoms for Peace program in Washington, and soon a large package of technical materials arrived in our mailbox. I studied them carefully. My father helped me with the technical terms and descriptions, and soon I understood how nuclear energy was produced. Amazing! Neat!
What could be better than this?
I decided to produce a detailed, comprehensive, schematic drawing of exactly how a nuclear power plant worked for my high school science project. I mounted the drawing on a big wooden board, carted it off to school, and explained to the science teacher all about critical mass and controlled reaction and heat transfer to make steam for generators, ultimately producing electricity.
It was many years before I learned that it would be better to use photons from the sun to produce electrical energy. It would be every bit as clean as nuclear power, without the risk of contaminating our cities for twenty-five thousand years if something went wrong (and something will always go wrong, some day); it would eventually prove to be cheaper than nuclear energy, which became so costly that it nearly bankrupted several U.S. utilities that invested too heavily in it. Later, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima nailed the nuclear coffin shut, perhaps for good. That leaves the sun as the natural source for electricity.
* * *
Despite this early interest in electricity production, I did not get a job in the power industry, nor did I study science, engineering, technology, or business. None of my father's astonishing abilities in mechanics, science, and engineering rubbed off on me. I decided to become a writer and a journalist; studied history, English, and poli-sci; and set out after college to cover the story of my generation: Vietnam. I decided to "learn by doing." I learned to write about war by going out to see it and watching contemporaries die in it, including one of my best high school friends, drafted into the infantry right after he returned from serving his country for two years in the Peace Corps. (I too was drafted, but that's not a subject for this book.)
The Vietnam War alienated a generation, and many of us "dropped out" of mainstream society. I chose the freelance writer's life in a Colorado mountain town, a place to recover from the sixties and try to become whole again. Meanwhile, the Middle East soon replaced Vietnam as a focus of our national attention. Today, it is all we think about. Radical Islam, Muslim Iran, and the Arab revolt seem to control our lives and our future.
After the 1973 oil embargo caused by the Middle Eastern members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), energy became dinner-table conversation. Soon thereafter—in the wake of the Watergate scandal, Nixon's resignation, and the United States's hightailing it out of Vietnam at long last, losing our first war—the nuclear engineer and submarine officer (and Georgia governor) Jimmy Carter was elected to preside over a very depressed United States, wearing his cardigan and telling us to turn down our thermostats to save energy.
President Carter created a new government agency, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), and a new cabinet post. The DOE included a division dealing exclusively with energy conservation and solar energy.
Tom Tatum was one of Carter's bright young campaign operatives, a Georgia native and Vanderbilt University law graduate who earned his political bona fides managing Maynard Jackson's campaign to become the first black mayor of Atlanta. Carter wanted to keep a close watch on his new pet projects, the DOE and his energy policy, so he brought Tom to Washington and offered him a special assignment at the DOE's Office of Energy Conservation and Solar Energy (which was soon known as Conservation and Solar).
I had first met Tom in the aforementioned Colorado mountain town, where he had recently bought a ski condo. A former antiwar activist and mutual friend, Sam Brown, who was then working for Carter in Washington, had told Tom to look me up. We met at the local saloon, where we talked serious politics amid the cowboys and ski bums, trying to hear each other over Willie Nelson on the jukebox. Scotch, our drug of choice, lubricated our late-night conversations about … energy! Tom said he needed help in Washington at the new Department of Energy to launch "the solar revolution."
I was rested from my antiwar activism and ready for a good fight, and a revolution sounded perfect. So, when Tom, back in Washington, called to ask me to come to D.C. immediately to help him promote solar and energy conservation at the highest levels of the U.S. government, I said sure. I came down from the mountain, spent part of 1979 in Washington at the DOE, and returned to D.C. for the summer of 1980, still one of the hottest on record. Temperatures hovered at 86 degrees indoors because President Carter had ordered all the government thermostats set at 80 to save energy. And you couldn't open the windows.
Despite the heat, we had not heard of global warming. That would come later. What we were concerned about, talking late into the night over our Dewar's at the Hawk and Dove on Capitol Hill, was energy security. Carter had come to power just after the United States had passed "peak oil," the point at which the country began to extract its oil reserves faster than it could find new oil deposits. The United States was no longer self-sufficient in the oil department, and we began to import more and more crude oil—over 50 percent of our daily needs—from the OPEC countries that had caused the long gas lines in 1973 and who were now (1979) raising prices to over thirty dollars a barrel. In July 1979, President Carter addressed the country and said, "Energy will be the immediate test of our ability to unite the nation."
The issue quickly became: How could the United States wean itself off dependence on foreign oil? Especially oil from the unstable Middle East?
Tom and I thought we knew. We read S. David Freeman's Energy: The New Era. He was a guru to us. Carter had appointed Freeman to head the Tennessee Valley Authority, where Freeman was closing down three nuclear reactors while preaching energy independence, energy efficiency, and solar energy. (David and I later crossed paths in a remarkable if star-crossed way, as I will explain later.) Denis Hayes, the founder (with Senator Gaylord Nelson) of Earth Day in 1970, was writing about "renewable energy" (a new phrase for me)—and the brilliant young Amory Lovins was agitating for a "soft energy path" and for "energy conservation," making his views known at our office in the DOE. Tom directly advised the president about these new policy ideas.
I moved into my office next to the assistant secretary for solar energy and energy conservation at DOE and began writing speeches and developing policy briefs. I had a U.S.-government-issue manual typewriter, since I never could manage to work an IBM Selectric. Computers? Please. I'd only seen one, and it took up about forty square feet. And I knew absolutely nothing about energy conservation or solar energy.
However, I was keenly interested in this so-called solar revolution, whatever it was supposed to be about. And as a red-blooded, patriotic American, I didn't like the idea of OPEC countries controlling our economy or our destiny. We had to find "alternative sources" of energy, whatever those might be.
* * *
Before I continue, let me say that if this was a book about energy policy, I could stop right here because very little has changed in the United States in the past twenty-five years regarding energy policy. Not even President Obama, who campaigned in part on a green-energy platform, could get an energy plan through his Democratic Congress in his first term. Today, we're debating "energy security" exactly as it was debated by us young hotshots over three decades ago in the bars and cloakrooms of the nation's capital, except that then we helped the administration come up with a national energy plan that was far more progressive than anything seen in the Congress since. Today, in the wake of the Gulf War, September 11, and the Iraq and Afghan wars, energy security is far more critical than it was during the Carter era. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Or is it déjà vu all over again?
And the environment? Few thought about it then. Today, we think about it a lot, but do nothing, while energy security has trumped concern over greenhouse gases, climate change, and global warming. The right of Americans to drive SUVs and gas-guzzling pickups trumped concern over the loss of young lives in Lebanon (258 marines were killed in 1981), Kuwait, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq (4,700 dead), and Afghanistan (more than 2,000 dead) as the United States seeks to keep the oil regions stable.
* * *
Meanwhile, back at the DOE: President Carter came down from Camp David, like Moses, clutching his national energy plan and proclaiming for all the world to hear, "This democracy which we love is going to make its stand on the battlefield of energy." He said that this would require the "most massive peacetime commitment of funds and resources in the nation's history." The $88 billion package Congress subsequently approved for Carter's energy initiatives was bigger than the Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Europe after World War II.
On June 20, 1979, Carter gave his "solar energy" speech to Congress, outlining a "national solar strategy" that included the goal of supplying 20 percent of our nation's energy needs from the sun by the year 2000. Carter had announced his "domestic policy review" for solar energy the year before on "Sun Day" in Denver. Tom Tatum and I were ecstatic; everything we were working for had the full backing of the president of the United States, or so we thought.
Then, we discovered that more powerful people than our little group at the DOE had the ear of Energy Secretary Jim Schlesinger (who had been defense secretary under Presidents Nixon and Ford). These were, you guessed it, the oil companies. To Secretary Schlesinger's credit, he did say shortly after taking the job, and just after the near meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear facility, that "no nuclear plant will ever get built in the USA again," and until 2012 he was right about that. But that didn't mean he believed the president's goal of a 20 percent renewable-resource-based society was attainable, or that he'd throw the gigantic subsidies for nuclear and oil over to solar and renewables.
That $88 billion was largely going for the "alternative energy" called … synfuels (synthetic fuels). Does anyone remember synfuels? This was oil "mined" from shale rock by heating it in situ. Exxon and Occidental Petroleum raced to extract oil from the vast oil shale deposits of western Colorado. Exxon was going to strip-mine for oil, and Occidental drilled the world's deepest mine shaft, looking to bring it out that way. Did it matter to anyone that extracting oil from shale was more costly than any already-proven solar technology, thermal or electric? Not in a country ruled by "big oil."
"The old nuclear crowd and the fossil-fuel guys within the department were really astonished that the president made that kind of commitment to solar," Tom told me later. "The sandbagging started immediately. I tried to get the White House to allow the president's solar speech before Congress to be televised, but they said no, and it went by like a speeding bullet."
On the plus side, the Carter energy plan included substantial funds for Conservation and Solar at DOE, including research money for the new Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI) at Golden, Colorado, to be headed by the Earth Day cofounder Denis Hayes. We still had plenty of work to do on the solar front. We never believed in the "synfuel fix," and I wrote numerous articles exposing the program after visiting the huge "oil mining" operations in western Colorado. The oil companies spent billions of taxpayer money on synfuels, but President Ronald Reagan finally pulled the plug on it, calling it "corporate welfare"!
Synfuels were the precursor to tar sands, the enormously costly undertaking in Alberta that extracts oil sludge from rock with catastrophic environmental consequences, and there is no politician on either side of the border with the courage to stop it and redirect our efforts toward sustainable energy alternatives, of which there are plenty, as you'll see.
Not all the oil companies got their hands dirty with oil shale: Atlantic Richfield (ARCO), under the leadership of Robert O. Anderson, sold its interests to Exxon. Anderson, founder of the Aspen Institute, saw synfuels for the scam that it was. His was the first oil company to invest in solar.
Since none of us was sure if President Carter would get a second term given his standing in the polls in 1979, we decided we had to act quickly if solar energy was going to see the light of day, so to speak. We had the blessing of the White House, even if the aging "old technology" guys in DOE were trying to kill us. I thought of German physicist Max Planck's quote, loosely translated as "New ideas in physics triumph only after the adherents of the old ideas have died."
* * *
The most exciting new idea in physics was photovoltaics, first developed by Bell Labs in 1953; this new technology enabled the production of electricity from sunlight using "solar cells." Up to thirty-six of these small silicon wafers are soldered together with metal tabs and assembled into a "module," commonly called a solar "panel," which converts sunlight into electrons. The electrons flow as twelve-volt direct current from the solar cells. Asking me to explain this would be like asking a television network executive to explain how a TV works (see Appendix 1).
Paul Maycock, a physicist formerly with Bell Labs and Texas Instruments, headed up the PV shop at DOE, managing a budget of $900 million for applied research and "commercialization" under the Carter program. He was called Boomer, for he spoke in a voice that filled up a room of any size without amplification. Rotund, bearded, and intensely absentminded, he was busy bringing government support to the fledgling technology through contracts with manufacturers, research labs, and commercial innovators.
Paul told me, "Residential systems are being sold all over the world right now. Solar cells are already economically viable for off-the-grid, isolated homes and villages. By 1986, we expect photovoltaics to be fully economic for residential use in this country, at a cost to consumers of six cents per kilowatt hour in the sunnier parts of the country."
Paul was dreaming, and a little ahead of his time—by about twenty years—but his vision would eventually be realized.
Denis Hayes out at SERI in Colorado was predicting that we'd achieve DOE's goal of bringing the cost of solar cells down to seventy cents per watt by the mid-1980s. He too was dreaming. But by 2012 PV panel prices averaged less than a dollar per watt, a huge cost reduction from ninety dollars a watt, which is what solar modules cost in the mid-1970s. By 1980, the price for the PV panels used in the world's first 100-kilowatt array installed at Natural Bridges, Utah, was ten dollars a watt.
I was excited. Here was the technology that could save humanity! It was 100 percent American ingenuity. We could make enough solar cells from silicon, the most abundant element on earth after oxygen, to not only replace oil and coal, but to build decentralized, self-sufficient power networks managed by microprocessors that would allow every home to be its own utility. Suburban roofs would be covered with solar panels, making families energy independent; huge "arrays" of panels in the Southwest desert and installed on our commercial rooftops would produce industrial-strength power for the grid. Cars would all be electric, charged up by the sun (DOE's electric-car people predicted that nine million all-electric cars would be on the road by 1990). More dreaming.
Photovoltaics, along with wind energy, small and large hydroplants, biomass, cogeneration, energy conservation and efficiency, solar thermal plants, solar water heating, and whatever else the busy denizens of DOE's solar office were coming up with, would foster energy self-reliance and create a "decentralized" energy system.
America would be a land of "ecotopians," to borrow a word from Ernest Callenbach's visionary tract Ecotopia. A "solartopia" would follow.
Free energy from the sun sounded good to me. But we were way ahead of our time, and what we didn't know was that the technology to accomplish all this wasn't nearly as ready or as economically viable as we had hoped.
* * *
Tom Tatum asked me to help communicate this dream of a new future to the American people in what would become the largest solar energy communications campaign in American history. Actually, it was the only one.
Six foot three, charismatic, handsome, and irresistible to D.C.'s population of attractive single women, Tom focused on his calling like a southern preacher. He stood out like a Rhett Butler among the gray hordes of Washington bureaucrats, who seldom smiled and never laughed. He had fun, strolling by the sidewalk cafes of Capitol Hill with a different woman on his arm every evening, but by day his dazzling intellect was applied to only one thing: saving the world with solar energy.
Carter had given him carte blanche to try. Tom's one-of-a-kind Office of Institutional Liaison and Communications ("I made it up," Tom told me years afterward) meant he didn't need to work through DOE's Office of Public Affairs, which was controlled by ex-military types looking after the real concerns of DOE—processing uranium and making nuclear weapons. (The department was also known as "the bomb factory." When Carter formed DOE, Congress dumped the Atomic Energy Commission into it. The commission oversaw the government's breeder reactors, which manufactured fissile material for nuclear warheads, Atoms for Peace having somehow been forgotten along the way.) Tom was ready to take risks to launch a full-blown national promotion of solar energy, using all the budget at his disposal and damn the torpedoes.
We believed it was our job to communicate the new ideas, including how energy conservation could reduce the need for imported oil, what a solar economy might look like, and how we could attain it. There was an air of "national crisis" in Washington; the big worry was that oil could go to one hundred dollars a barrel. Such a price would destroy the world's economy. It had nearly hit forty dollars in the 1970s before retreating.
We had to raise the consciousness of the American people, and we had the platform and resources to do it from our base at DOE. What more did we need?
Hollywood! We'd use entertainment, television, celebrities, movie stars, and the cinema to get the word out, just like the government did to rally America against the Nazis in the early days of World War II.
But first we had to come up with a strategy. I suggested a high-level national retreat somewhere, and we found a glorious mountain camp above Boulder, Colorado, in the foothills of the Rockies. When the owner offered us the Gold Lake Ranch compound for free over beers at the Hotel Boulderado, we took it. A "Boulder hippie" with business acumen, he sought to operate a respectable mountain conference center, and he wanted to do his part for the solar revolution. The DOE would be his first big client. He only asked that we pay for the food. Tom OK'd the deal, and I was ordered to come up with an invitation list for the Gold Lake Solar Energy Media and Communications Strategy Conference.
We brought together young leaders and professionals from television, film, advertising, banking, politics, local government, architecture, publishing, construction, broadcasting, education, philanthropy, business and industry, as well as a former leader of the anti–Vietnam War movement. For the veterans of the antiwar movement, the No Nukes cause was the hot new crusade. However, our little DOE workshop was suspect among members of the No Nukes movement and the Hollywood rock music community, since it was the DOE that had promoted and subsidized nuclear power and also operated the country's two uranium-processing plants.
We met with the No Nukes people as well as with Musicians United for Clean Energy at their offices on Sunset Boulevard and explained, "No, we're not pronuclear. We're from the Office of Conservation and Solar, and we're reporting directly to the president." We reminded them that Carter's own appointee to head the TVA was against nuclear power. (David Freeman would continue that drumbeat two decades later, stating at a Sierra Club roundtable, "Nuclear power is dead, except in the hearts and minds of the religious believers in nuclear power. After September 11, we are surely not so dumb as to build more Trojan horses in our country. The danger of a penetration into a nuclear reactor—which is difficult but not impossible—is so horrendous that we've got to be out of our minds to build more nuclear power plants. And I say this as someone who's had as much experience with nuclear power as anyone in this country. In this age of terror, we just can't have them.")
Stopping nuclear power back then seemed like a fine cause, along with reducing the use of imported oil, but what was going to replace these energy sources? Well, the No Nukes people had been using John Hall's song "Power" ("Give me the warm power of the sun") to promote the alternative. A local musician sang it before the great fireplace at the Gold Lake Ranch following our welcome dinner, and we all dreamed of a new America powered by solar energy. (I wouldn't hear the song again until Peter, Paul, and Mary sang it from the stage at Earth Day 2000 in Washington, where actor Leonardo DiCaprio and Vice President Al Gore spoke passionately about the environment, standing beneath a two-hundred-foot-long banner proclaiming "Clean Energy Now." Peter, a longtime friend, told me backstage just before the trio walked out to the mikes before the huge audience, "This is for you!")
The singer at Gold Lake was followed by a Ponca Indian poet named SaSuWeh, who recited his poem "Master of the Sun" and then offered around his peace pipe.
What were we smoking? I now wonder, looking back thirty-two years later. Actually, we were only drinking. No drugs were allowed at the retreat, so we had to be content with the clear Rocky Mountain air, French food, and large quantities of booze. I never knew who picked up the bar tab for what the subsequent DOE report called "an eclectic gathering of professionals."
The goals of the conference, as stated in the Gold Lake project report, were "to develop a communications strategy aimed at overcoming the institutional and psychological market barriers to solar energy in this country, and accelerate the transition to a renewable resources society including a 20 percent solar America by the year 2000; to form an advisory pool of non-governmental professional media resources; and to urge the formation of a private-sector national media coalition for the purpose of developing solar markets and prompting the use of the sun's energy."
What were we drinking?
Reading the DOE's sixteen-page summary report today is to sadly recall a dream unfulfilled. But Gold Lake did launch a national campaign to promote energy alternatives and energy conservation. And our Hollywood communications effort was a direct outcome.
I moved from D.C. to "duty station Hollywood," where I'd once paid my dues, like so many young writers, trying to get a feature film made (Tom would later move to Hollywood to make movies while I got into the solar business). Soon, Tom and I were meeting with all the big names in television series production, convincing them to help America solve its energy crisis. Gold Lake had opened a lot of doors. Energy-conservation messages were written into dozens of sit-coms, which reached tens of millions of people. I brought in a friend, producer Jon Davison (Airplane, RoboCop), who got director Ron Howard to help us, and Tom fronted a quarter million in DOE money for Reach for the Sun, a TV film for children about solar energy and energy efficiency, coproduced with KCET-TV, Los Angeles. We worked with Robert Redford to help promote his "Solar Film," a seven-minute masterpiece of solar propaganda offering a new energy future. It ran in thousands of theaters that year as a public-interest trailer. Today, it is a curious artifact of a long-lost vision.
At Gold Lake we filmed a U.S. government public-service announcement featuring the Ponca Indian in a tepee teaching his small son about the benefits of the sun's energy. We intercut his solar paean with images of solar hot-water installations on Boulder apartment houses and wind generators in the Midwest. This was followed by dirge music over aerial shots of a supertanker making its way to U.S. shores with its cargo of liquid black gold. Then the words "explore solar energy, U.S. Department of Energy" appeared on the screen, followed by an 800 number for information. "Master of the Sun" is still viewable on YouTube.
Several thousand of these PSAs were distributed and played for years on hundreds of local television stations. We also produced a thousand radio PSAs featuring Hall's solar song. When the Reagan transition team swept through the DOE in the winter of 1980, they found this subversive material and burned the lot of it. President Reagan preferred the warm power of imported oil (he was right; it was cheaper to get it from Saudi Arabia than from oil shale or renewables). He also had no use for energy conservation. "America didn't conserve its way to greatness," he was fond of saying.
Actually, it was energy conservation and its counterpart, energy efficiency, that together accounted for an unparalleled energy success story arising from the Carter years. Five years after Jimmy Carter's one-term presidency, the country was using 15 percent less electricity than when Carter came into office, despite a healthy growth in the GDP along the way. This was attributable almost solely to government-sponsored energy-saving programs in partnership with industry, business, and consumers. The Office of Conservation and Solar instituted virtually all the then controversial programs that became commonplace in the decades after, such as using compact fluorescent lightbulbs, reducing energy waste in refrigerators and air conditioners, making buildings more efficient, implementing industrial cogeneration, and mandating household weatherization. The first solar tax credits proposed by DOE at this time were enacted by Congress, fostering a whole new solar water-heating industry. All this was Carter's unsung legacy.
Tom's shop at DOE led the way with public education, building national awareness for the need to "save energy." While we had not made any headway in "selling solar" to the American people, we were unexpectedly successful at selling energy conservation and efficiency. We brought in the mainstream press for special seminars inside DOE and worked with the White House to produce the first "energy fair" on the mall in Washington. We cajoled DOE's public affairs office to back a national campaign: "Energy: We Can't Afford to Waste It."
* * *
But on the solar front, we lost the war. After Gold Lake, Tom's office proposed to the White House a $50 million paid-advertising campaign for solar energy, but it was denied funding by the appropriations committees. By this time, Tom was getting pushed aside by the oil and synfuels people at DOE. They managed to get his independent communications responsibilities transferred to the DOE central public affairs office, which buried the solar message for good when a new energy secretary, Charles Duncan Jr., former CEO of Coca-Cola, brought in a military guy to oversee it.
"Duncan brought in nineteen special assistants, who were trampling all over everybody at the agency," said Tom, "and they spent a great deal of their time trampling over everyone at Conservation and Solar. All of them came from the Defense Department or industry, with no experience in energy at all."
Tom was incensed that a larger and larger portion of DOE's budget was going for the nuclear-warhead program instead of domestic energy needs. "This agency needs to be broken up," he said. Even The Washington Post, in an editorial, agreed. It never was. Reagan said he'd dismantle the DOE when he was elected. He never did. He couldn't. It remains a bloated bureaucracy that even enlightened secretaries like Hazel O'Leary, Bill Richardson, and Steven Chu could not tame.
At the same time, Congress continued to allocate sizable funds for solar and conservation. Paul Maycock's shop got $90 million in 1981 to support the "commercialization" (a term of bureaucratese I learned at DOE) of photovoltaics. The solar research center in Colorado got its operating money, but no money for public education. As a result, few Americans knew that the U.S. government was running a program devoted to solar energy that employed nearly one thousand people. The Solar Energy Research Institute was later renamed the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, excising the nasty word "solar."
Thanks to the Iran hostage crisis and the Middle East stew of unending violence, which was driving and controlling U.S. foreign policy even before the cold war ended, Carter was in trouble. Tom, by then getting further sidelined at DOE, saw the writing on the wall. He was disappointed that efforts to get the solar, conservation, and efficiency message out to the American people were being dismantled by DOE officials and that Carter's White House would not intervene.
Tom Tatum resigned from DOE in September 1980, citing "substantive disagreements" with the department's "balanced energy agenda." In his resignation letter, he pointed out his opposition to the enormous subsidies for synfuels technology. "I believe," he wrote, "the resources that have been arrayed to develop the synthetic fuels industry misallocate capital that is badly needed to implement comprehensive energy efficiency programs in the United States and accelerate the use of renewable resources to reach the President's goal of 20 percent solar by the year 2000."
Tom held a huge farewell party on the roof of the Hotel Washington in September 1980, attended by many of the city's young movers and shakers and dozens of the most beautiful and intelligent women in Washington.
Tom moved to LA. "There are even more beautiful women out there," he said. He married a lovely film editor, and Tom and I later collaborated on a movie treatment about a fictional conspiracy to stop a technical "breakthrough" in photovoltaics that would have badly hurt the oil companies. Needless to say, the movie didn't get made, although a feature film, The Formula, with a similar plot appeared two years later, starring Marlon Brando and George C. Scott. It bombed. Tom and I would not collaborate on solar energy for another thirty years.
Paul Maycock, head of the photovoltaics office, left DOE when the Reagan people took away his allocated PV budget. Had PV received the same push into the marketplace that nuclear power enjoyed, we'd probably all be living in sun-powered houses today. But Paul was told that, unlike nuclear and fossil fuels that were strongly supported with ten times the amount of subsidies that clean-energy technologies received at DOE, solar would have to make its own way in the market.
Our goal of a "20 percent solar-based society by the year 2000" had been a self-inflicted delusion. That goal during the following decades became an ever-receding horizon. In 2003, I sat through an amazingly boring roundtable workshop at the World Resources Institute in Washington, where representatives from numerous nonprofit organizations and their earnest young policy wonks endlessly debated whether the "energy policy and environmental community" should call for America to derive "10 percent or 20 percent" of its energy from renewables by the year … 2020! The group decided that it would only be realistic to unite behind a target of 10 percent renewables by 2020.
That year, the press reported that "despite pleas from a bipartisan group of 53 senators, the Republican House leadership eliminated a provision from Pres. Bush's energy bill that would have required our nation to generate 10 percent of its electricity from renewable resources by 2020." At least Carter had gotten his 20 percent goal included in his energy bill twenty-five years earlier, largely based on the "energy security" argument. Presidential candidate John Kerry said in a speech in January 2004, "I support a national goal of producing 20 percent of our electricity from renewable sources by 2020." Plus ça change …
Such goals are nearly meaningless. The good news is that we may actually exceed these once ambitious targets given the rapid trajectory of solar and wind energy in America. That is the paramount message of this book.
Paul, having left government service, launched PV News in his basement. Exactly ten years later he joined the board of directors of my nonprofit organization and later my first commercial solar venture. Twenty-five years after Tom and I left the DOE's solar energy office, our attempt at fomenting a solar revolution having failed, a book reflecting the realities of solar power in the new millennium appeared, written by Travis Bradford, called Solar Revolution, but without the question mark as in the title of this chapter. Travis also purchased Paul Maycock's PV News, transforming it into the PV industry's leading insider newsletter.
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I went back to Colorado to escape the Reagan years, continued freelance writing, and became the marketing director for a large ski resort. Later, I became a real estate developer of sorts, buying and rehabilitating a historic building and running several businesses. I didn't think about solar energy for nearly a decade.
Before working for the DOE, I had written the cover story for the premier issue of Outside magazine in 1977 at the invitation of Jann Wenner, editor of Rolling Stone magazine, who launched the new outdoor sports publication. The first issue also contained a feature about the "eco-commando" environmental organization Greenpeace, which I had not heard of, founded in 1971 by a small antinuke group in Vancouver. It stuck in my mind.
I missed not having a mission. Not willing to grow old in a ski town, I landed back in Washington in 1987 to take a low-paying job at Greenpeace USA as their national director of media and public relations. Here I met Greenpeace's chairman, David McTaggart, a highly energetic Canadian who had lived and worked and developed real estate in California and Colorado ski resorts before heading off to the South Pacific in a small boat, where he managed single-handedly to end French nuclear testing in the atmosphere. This was a career switch if there ever was one! We had a lot in common. I liked David immensely, and years later I visited his magical house in an ancient olive grove in Umbria, where he asked me how to put solar hot-water and solarelectric systems on his roof. Before we could proceed, he was killed in a car crash in Italy, a catastrophic loss to the global environmental movement.
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It was at Greenpeace that I first heard the phrase "global warming." I learned a great deal at this amazing organization, which was "campaigning" on just about every environmental issue there was, from nuclear testing (belowground) and nuclear power to toxic wastes, cleaning up rivers and oceans, saving marine mammals, ending the seal slaughter in Canada, and stopping the hunting of whales.
In my new job I was determined to do everything possible to make Greenpeace as famous as it deserved to be. When the French government sank the Greenpeace antinuclear campaign ship Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand in 1985, the organization's profile soared in Europe. I wanted to raise its visibility in the United States.
I called Tom Tatum in LA, where he was producing a feature film about motocross racing and brought him back to D.C. so we could coproduce Greenpeace's Greatest Hits, a video featuring the organization's first decade of activism. I asked the late John Forsythe, the star of Dynasty, who possessed perhaps the greatest voice of the twentieth century, to narrate it. This was all great fun, and the video was a success. However, I was concerned that the young activists at Greenpeace seemed to see the world in stark, even hopeless, terms. Greenpeace was about highlighting problems, not providing solutions or hope. And solar energy as a positive partial solution to the energy and greenhouse-gas-emission problem, and hence to global warming, was not on its radar screen at the time, although that would change.
Five years later Greenpeace International, based in the Netherlands, launched a solar campaign. Geophysicist Dr. Jeremy Leggett, of Oxford University, advised the group on the need for radical change in energy policy. Our paths were to cross in 1997, when we both launched solar companies.
Almost nine years had gone by since I left DOE's employ. And I had begun to wonder, Whatever happened to solar energy?
I was looking for hope, so I left Greenpeace and began consulting for America's largest solar manufacturer, Solarex, based in Frederick, Maryland. It was headquartered in a large slab of a building, clearly visible from the interstate, and was dramatically covered on one side by three hundred kilowatts of blue polycrystalline PV modules gleaming in the sun. Started in 1983 by Drs. Peter Varadi and Joseph Lindmeyer, who shared a vision of "bringing solar down to earth," Solarex was producing solar modules for terrestrial use as well as for our space program, which is where PV got its start. The terrestrial market, then, was growing by 30 percent a year.
During the Reagan years, the oil companies had invested heavily in solar PV, and the industry was progressing quite nicely. Solarex was later sold to Amoco, and it eventually became BP Solar when British Petroleum purchased both Amoco and Standard Oil of Ohio. We will hear more about BP Solar later, before its demise in 2011.
I had no idea at the time that my solar odyssey had only just begun, as you'll see in the following chapter.
Copyright © 2014 by Neville Williams