Arrested Development: How President Jimmy Carter Stopped The First Solar Surge

Originally published on CleanTechnica

The following post from John Perlin is very much worth the read, especially for those many individuals, myself included, who saw former US president Jimmy Carter as a solar hero. As Mr. Perlin points out, Carter placed a severe roadblock in front of the developing solar photovoltaics industry. Perlin is the author of “Let It Shine: The 6,000-Year Story of Solar Energy.”

Arrested Development: How President Jimmy Carter Stopped the First Solar Surge

By John Perlin

solar man install shutterstock_149313983When researching material for the chapter on solar in the 1970s in my book, “Let It Shine: The 6,000-Year Story of Solar Energy,” I first took a look at Solar Age, the industry’s magazine at the time to get a contemporary account of where things stood back then. As I paged through the various issues, I came across an article penned by Denis Hayes, probably the most listened to solar advocate of the day, in which he wrote, “will [President] Carter join us and lead us into the solar era or will we have to drag him along behind us?”

Hayes’ ambivalent take on Carter’s solar stance piqued my interest; especially as so many currently revere him as our first solar President. So I dug deeper to determine the validity of this solar advocate’s skepticism, which led me to learn of the unfortunate fate of one of the most daring and brilliant proposals ever made in the last quarter of the twentieth century that would determine during that time period the course of photovoltaics in America, and for that matter, th­­e world.

When Carter took office there existed no more than 400 kilowatts of photovoltaics installed throughout the world. To ameliorate the situation, The Executive Branch and Congress had mandated the Federal Energy Administration [FEA]’s Task Force on Solar Energy Commercialization “to promote the accelerated and widespread commercialization of” photovoltaics.

As the task force studied the challenge of converting the manufacture of photovoltaics from a cottage industry into a commercial enterprise, it came across a previous successful sea change in the semiconductor field in which a governmental body, the Department of Defense [DoD], had initiated: the jump-starting of the integrated circuit market. In 1962, the private sector, just like in the case of photovoltaics, showed little interest, as the cost appeared prohibitive. But the DoD sorely needed them to modernize its arsenal. In hopes of making integrated circuits more affordable and increase their availability to guarantee a cheap and abundant supply, the DoD initiated a graduated schedule of purchases in which the price offered decreased and the demand for product increased. In the process, based on economies of scale – for every doubling of production the price dropped by 70% – and by steepening the learning curve – by making more, manufacturing processes improved as did devices with output growing over six years from 160,000 units to 120 million and the cost dropped twenty-fold.

Let it Shine author image

The FEA then asked the question, could the DoD do the same for photovoltaics and the Defense Department, after doing detailed research, answered affirmatively, as it discovered that it had 152 million watts of remote or portable generators that photovoltaics could immediately replace at its 1977 price of $15 per peak watt to significantly lower the Defense Department’s energy bill. In making five annual buys, the FEA and DoD concluded, for greater amounts at decreasing prices to purchase the 152 million watts would attain the following results: at a cost of 500 million dollars, the DoD would save over 2 billion while gaining power systems that had no thermal footprint – invisible to enemy detection – and reduce the need to convey fuel at great distances and in multiple trips, which has proven so deadly in recent wars and at the same time lowering the price of pv enough to create multiple new markets to drive production to at least 500 million watts by the end of the program in 1985, and in the process, birthing a whole new industry .

But the Carter administration did not agree. It believed, as made clear by the President’s Deputy Secretary of Energy, “There is no place for solar energy in this century. We have two options – coal and nuclear power.” As to implementing the FEA/DoD proposal, Carter himself let Congress know his opposition, stating, “It is still too early to concentrate on commercialization of photovoltaics. Therefore I will not propose to the Congress that a broad Federal solar photovoltaic purchase program be undertaken.” His steadfast opposition to the FEA/DoD’s innovative accelerated commercialization initiative was hard to swallow by many, as one observer noted, because, it seemed “to be an idea whose time had come, fortuitously coinciding with a new administration which had pledged, as its first major goal, to create a national program that could solve the energy crisis.”

The FEA predicted that if its program was not adopted, the development of a mature photovoltaic industry would otherwise “be long delayed,” And that was exactly what happened. The amount of photovoltaic installations throughout the world did not reach the FEA’s 1985 target until 2002. It took similar bold moves by the German and Chinese governments to realize the dream set forth in 1977 but deferred thanks to Carter’s reluctance that has led to today’s Solar Revolution.

Image: Man working on solar panel via Shutterstock

About the Author: John Perlin is author of four books: “A Golden Thread: 2500 Years of Solar Architecture and Technology;” “A Forest Journey: Wood and Civilization;” “From Space to Earth: The Story of Solar Electricity;” and his latest book, “Let It Shine: The 6000-Year Story of Solar Energy.” Harvard University Press Chose “A Forest Journey” as one of its “One-Hundred Great Books” published by the press, as well as a “Classic in Science and World History.” The Geographic Society and the Sierra Club chose the book as their “Publication of the Year.”

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