A free-market energy blog
Random header image... Refresh for more!

Solar Is Not An Infant Industry (So why is it perpetually hyped and subsidized?)

“In an 1878 letter, [John] Ericsson concluded that ‘the fact is . . . that although the heat is obtained for nothing, so extensive, costly, and complex is the concentration apparatus that solar steam is many times more costly than steam produced by burning coal.’”

- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 364.

Renewable energy, particularly wind and solar, are packaged as “new” and “the energy future.” But on close inspection, as the quotations below will show, these technologies are very old and have had many decades of application.

And as sure as the sun shines, solar and wind fail the economics and product-quality tests as dilute, non-stored, intermittent energy sources. And why amid a boom in fossil fuel supplies–a stock of energy from the sun’s work over the ages–would one chose a far more costly and unreliable energy source from the sun’s weak flow?

Unlike wind power, however, solar does have a pro-consumer, free-society niche as an off-the-grid power source. Such ‘micro’   electricity provides electricity that would not otherwise exist.

General

“Windmills, solar power, indeed the entire panoply of favored alternatives, are not new or revolutionary inventions. They do not arise from newly discovered principles of science; neither are they based on, nor do they epitomize, fundamental changes in engineering capabilities. Indeed, most alternative energy technologies are more stone-age in character than high-tech: burning wood and trash, tapping hot springs, capturing running water and the wind. The most exotic of the alternatives, solar photovoltaics, is based on the scientific phenomenon whose discovery yielded Einstein a Nobel Prize, and led to the first solar-electric cell being demonstrated in 1925. We have had more than ample time—75 years—for this technology to follow long-standing commercialization trajectories were it going to do so.”

- Mark Mills, Getting It Wrong: Energy Forecasts and the End-of-Technology Mindset, Competitive Enterprise Institute, February 1999, p. 30.

“Although much interest in the scientific community has been focused on solar energy at various times in history, widespread development of solar power equipment has never been achieved—primarily because of the high cost of developing solar power compared to that of technologies utilizing cheap fossil fuels.”

- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 379.

17th Century

“Northern Europeans started experimenting with solar collection devices in the seventeenth century to protect tropical plants brought home by explorers from distant lands. Two hundred years later, the first commercial solar product—a water heater—came on the market in the United States.”

- Cynthia Shea, “Renewable Energy: Today’s Contribution, Tomorrow’s Promise,” Worldwatch Paper 81, Worldwatch Institute, January 1988, p. 27.

18th Century

“Swiss scientist Nicholas de Saussure (1740-99) constructed the first solar ‘hot box’ or oven, and used it for cooking. . . . During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, other experimenters devised more sophisticated methods and machines for harnessing solar energy.”

- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 362.

19th Century

“[A] third major category of solar technologies relies on the photovoltaic effect, discovered by Edmund Becquerel in 1839.”

- Cynthia Shea, “Renewable Energy: Today’s Contribution, Tomorrow’s Promise,” Worldwatch Paper 81, Worldwatch Institute, January 1988, p. 31.

“The solar photovoltaic (PV) cell . . . employs the ‘photoelectric effect’ discovered by Edward Becquerel in 1839, using semiconductor chips to create electric current.”

- Seth Dunn, Micropower: The Next Electrical Era (Washington: Worldwatch Institute, 2000), p. 27.

“The venerable dean of America’s solar scientists, Dr. Charles Greeley Abbot of the Smithsonian Institution, began experimental work in the nineteenth century dealing with scientific aspects of solar radiation as well as the application of the sun’s energy to the production of power. Dr. Abbot’s contributions continued until 1973, when he celebrated his 101st birthday; he died later that year. The oldest known holder of any U.S. patent, he was recognized internationally as a pioneer in several scientific fields.”

- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 367.

“The French solar engine pioneer [Augustin] Mouchot demonstrated the art of cooking beef in a solar oven at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1878.”

- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 374.

Early 20th Century

“In 1908, [Frank] Shuman formed the Sun Power Company and convinced English financiers to back his efforts to build larger plants using the flat-plate collectors. In 1911, he demonstrated a plant in Philadelphia with more than 10,000 feet of collector surface. It produced 816 pounds of steam per hour and was used to operate a steam-driven water pump.”

- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 365.

“Solar water heaters, as we have seen, were in widespread use in a number of countries—not only less-developed countries, but also the technologically advanced nations—until the advent of cheaper forms of energy, including electricity. The few remaining locations where the heaters are in use are either isolated from sources of cheap fuels or reflect individuals’ personal preference for solar energy to other fuels.”

- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), pp. 373-74.

1930s and 1940s

“Between the turn of the century and the 1930s in the United States, the first widespread commercial use of solar energy came into being with the installation of solar water heaters in California and Florida. . . . Tens of thousands of these heaters were sold in both states until the middle 1950s.”

- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 370.

“Boston businessman Godfrey L. Cabot . . . granted MIT more than $600,000 in 1938 to develop solar energy. Cabot lived more than 100 years, and retained his keen interest in solar energy until his death in the early 1960s. The Cabot solar program is still alive—though little more than nominally—at MIT.”

- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 471.

“Since the pioneering days of the 1940s, optical thin-film coatings have progressed significantly. While the early films were in single layers, as many as 100 layers capable of performing specialized optical tasks are possible today.”

- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 410.

“Since the early 1940s, about twenty-five houses have been built to meet heating needs with solar energy.”

- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 470.

1940s and 1950s

“When . . . fears about energy shortages were expressed in the United States in the late 1940s and early 1950s, solar scientists also suggested then that—as a national policy—the collection of solar energy on house rooftops should be explored. In fact, ‘solar houses,’ using an expanded version of the solar hot water heater technology, were built in several areas of the nation in the 1940s.”

- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 380.

So much excitement had been drummed up in the 1940s and early 1950s at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Colorado State University, and by individual engineers and architects across the country by the initial development of solar-heated houses that the 1952 report of the President’s Materials Policy Commission predicted the widespread adoption of solar-heated dwellings. . . . By 1975, the report predicted, 13 million solar heating systems—at a cost of more than $2,000 each—would be installed on U.S. homes and commercial buildings and would account for 10 percent of the nation’s over-all energy needs of all kinds.”

- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 380.

1950s and 1960s

“This chart [on feasible sites for solar heating] was originally published in the journal Heating and Ventilating in 1950, when interest in solar-heated houses was fairly widespread in the United States.”

- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 469.

“Probably the leading enthusiast of solar-electric heat pumps [in the 1950s] was the head of one of the nation’s largest electric power companies—Philip Sporn, president of American Electric Power Company. Working with E. R. Ambrose, the chief of the company’s air conditioning division, he conducted a number of tests on the solar power-augmented electric heat pumps. . . . Nothing much came of the experiments conducted by Sporn and Ambrose, except that the experiments demonstrated the technical soundness of the combined solar-electric heat pump system. In the 1960s, Ambrose noted that only a few actual systems were built, due to the high initial cost of the solar collectors combined with the heat pump.”

- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), pp. 475-77.

“All the previously described American solar-heated houses and buildings built in the 1950s have long since been either razed or modified to utilize conventional electric, oil, or gas heating systems. Only a few houses survived this initial era of solar experimentation.”

- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 482.

“The only use of solar energy to cool the solar houses of the 1950s and 1960s was by allowing water to circulate in reverse—from the storage tank back into the collector at night, giving off heat to the cool night air.”

- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 491.

“In 1954, researchers at Bell Telephone Laboratories announced the discovery of the photovoltaic method of producing electricity from silicon photocells.”

- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 378.

“A solar-powered air conditioner large enough to cool a house was built in 1964. The unit had a 3-1/2 ton capacity, and used 400 square feet of solar collector surface.”

- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 492.

“Solar water heaters have been produced in great quantities in such sun-rich countries as Israel, Japan, and Australia. America solar engineer John Yellott reported in 1960, after a visit to Japan to examine uses of solar energy, that more than 200,000 solar water heaters were is use—ranging from simple plastic ‘pillows’ filled with water to sophisticated flat-plate collectors with aluminum pipes.”

- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 373.

“In 1968, Dr. Peter Glaser, vice president of Arthur D. Little, Inc.—the Cambridge, Massachusetts, think tank—and head of its Engineering Sciences Division, published an article in Science magazine that unleashed something of a furor . . . suggesting that not only was solar energy an excellent source of energy for the future production of electricity, but that it could be collected in space with silicon electrical cells and transmitted back to Earth in a microwave beam. The space station would be of enormous size, and the microwave beam transmitting power to Earth would span 22,300 miles. It would supply 10 million kilowatts of electrical power, or the equivalent of 10 large, new electrical generation plants—enough to supply the voracious electrical needs of New York City and some surrounding areas in 1990.”

- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), pp. 395-96.

1970s

“In 1970, two University of Arizona scientists attracted national attention with an ambitious proposal to turn more than 5,000 square miles of the southwestern United States desert into what they called a ‘national solar power firm’ capable of supplying all U.S. electricity needs in the twenty-first century.”

- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 408.

“In the early 1970s several major corporations—principally aerospace industries—began investigating solar power for earthbound applications, including electric power plants.”

- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 382.

1980s

“ARCO Solar is sufficiently convinced of the industry’s growth potential that it is increasing the annual manufacturing capability at one of its plants to 5 megawatts.”

- Cynthia Shea, “Renewable Energy: Today’s Contribution, Tomorrow’s Promise,” Worldwatch Paper 81, Worldwatch Institute, January 1988, p. 36.

“The major new approach was to develop ‘thin-film’ cells in which the photovoltaic materials are less than one one-hundredth as thick (one micron) as their crystalline counterparts.”

- Cynthia Shea, “Renewable Energy: Today’s Contribution, Tomorrow’s Promise,” Worldwatch Paper 81, Worldwatch Institute, January 1988, p. 34.

13 comments

1 Solar Is Not An Infant Industry! (So why is it perpetually hyped … | H2O Report { 10.06.09 at 7:21 am }

[...] original post here:  Solar Is Not An Infant Industry! (So why is it perpetually hyped … alternative, anchor, anchor-books, climate, denmark, energy, extinction, renewable-energy, solar, [...]

2 Homemade Biodiesel Kits Are Used to Make Biodiesel Fuel by First Timers | Newyork Solar Power Installation { 10.06.09 at 7:49 am }

[...] Solar Is Not An Infant Industry! (So why is it perpetually hyped … [...]

3 Paul E. May { 10.06.09 at 8:58 am }

This was an interesting chronology. I was a little disappointed that it ended with nothing to say of the last two decades and without strongly capitalizing on the main point that it was clearly building toward. I’d like to see more articles like this one about the other alternative energies.

4 GM Foods Against » Post » Solar in Georgia { 10.06.09 at 9:37 am }

[...] Solar Is Not An Infant Industry! (So why is it perpetually hyped … [...]

5 Residential Solid Waste Removal | Kansas Solar Installations { 10.06.09 at 11:00 am }

[...] Solar Is Not An Infant Industry! (So why is it perpetually hyped … [...]

6 Our Family’s: The 3 R’s - Our Commitment to Do More | Teaching about Solar Power { 10.06.09 at 12:38 pm }

[...] Solar Is Not An Infant Industry! (So why is it perpetually hyped … [...]

7 Residential Solid Waste Removal | Georgia Solar Installation { 10.06.09 at 1:56 pm }

[...] Solar Is Not An Infant Industry! (So why is it perpetually hyped … [...]

8 Richard W. Fulmer { 10.06.09 at 2:47 pm }

Every quote you cite dates back to times before Obama became President. If he can heal the planet and stop the oceans from rising, he can surely command the wind and the sun.

9 Christians and Earth Day | Solar in Louisiana { 10.06.09 at 6:46 pm }

[...] Solar Is Not An Infant Industry! (So why is it perpetually hyped … [...]

10 Real Threat is Hazardous Waste | Solar Power in Oregon { 10.06.09 at 7:02 pm }

[...] Solar Is Not An Infant Industry! (So why is it perpetually hyped … [...]

11 High Capital Costs Plague Solar (RPS mandates, cost dilution via energy mixing required) — MasterResource { 10.07.09 at 1:01 am }

[...] But in relative terms, solar power generation is hardly a blip on the energy screen despite its long history of technological [...]

12 Windpower Is Not an Infant Industry! (but is a government-dependent ‘bubble’ industry) — MasterResource { 10.13.09 at 1:02 am }

[...] week I posted on the long history of solar energy to make the point that this technology is not an infant [...]

13 Ben { 10.19.09 at 1:30 pm }

Interesting. It certainly makes one see that many of the “just around the corner” claims have been just around the corner for decades.

I would have liked to see solar’s good applications take a little more precidence, especially garden lights and to-far-to-wire applications in the middle of nowhere. It is very nice not having to run wire through the flower beds, and solar is the only economical option for some people. However, it is a good article in it’s point.

Leave a Comment