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Solar is Not An Infant Industry (Part II: Twentieth Century)

“The range of energy possibilities grouped under the heading ‘solar’ could meet one-fifth of U.S. energy needs within two decades.”

- Robert Stobaugh and Daniel Yergin, “The End of Easy Oil,” in Stobaugh and Yergin, eds., Energy Future, Report of the Energy Project of the Harvard Business School (New York: Random House, 1979), p. 12.

”I think … the consensus … is after the year 2000, somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of our energy could come from solar technologies, quite easily.”

  – Scott Sklar, Solar Energy Industries Association (1987).

“Before maybe the end of this decade, I see wind and solar being cost-competitive without subsidy with new fossil fuel.”

- DOE Secretary Stephan Chu, Address to Pew Charitable Trusts, March 23, 2011.

Yesterday’s Part I on the long history of solar power ended with two quotations from energy historian Wilson Clark in his 1974 book, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction:

“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” (p. 365).

“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” (p. 370).

The rest of the century would be the story of certain tried-and-true applications (water heaters), a lot of better-but-not-nearly-good-enough technological progress, and hype and failure in the political energy era (1970s-to-present).

1930s Solar

“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.

 

1940s Solar

“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, 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, p. 470.

1940s–1950s Solar

“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, 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, p. 380.

“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, p. 367.

1950s Solar

“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, p. 469.

“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, p. 378.

“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, 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, 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, p. 491.

1960s Solar

“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, p. 373.

“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, p. 492.

“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, pp. 395-96.

1970s Solar

“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, p. 382.

“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, p. 408.

“Solar hot water and space heating technology is now being used and is ready for widespread commercialization.”

- Executive Office of the President, The National Energy Plan (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1977), p. xxii.

“The range of energy possibilities grouped under the heading ‘solar’ could meet one-fifth of U.S. energy needs within two decades.”

- Robert Stobaugh and Daniel Yergin, “The End of Easy Oil,” in Stobaugh and Yergin, eds., Energy Future, Report of the Energy Project of the Harvard Business School (New York: Random House, 1979), p. 12.

“Mixed solar/conventional installations could become the most economical alternative in most parts of the United States within the next few years.”

- Barry Commoner, The Poverty of Power (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976), p. 151.

1980s Hope & Hype 

”I think … the consensus … is after the year 2000, somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of our energy could come from solar technologies, quite easily.”

- Scott Sklar, Solar Energy Industries Association. Quoted in Solar Power, Hearing before the Subcommittee on Energy and Power of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, House of Representatives, 100th Cong., 1st sess. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1987), p. 12.

“In future decades, [photovoltaic technologies] may become standard equipment on new buildings, using the sunlight streaming through windows to generate electricity.”

- Cynthia Shea, “Renewable Energy: Today’s Contribution, Tomorrow’s Promise,” Worldwatch Paper 81, Worldwatch Institute, January 1988, p. 44.

“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,” p. 34.

”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,” p. 36.

“In 1986, Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute lamented the untimely scale back of tax breaks for renewable energy since the competitive viability of wind and solar technologies was ‘one to three years away.’ Over a decade later, the renewable energy lobby, pressured by a regulatory restructuring to allow customers to competitively procure electricity, is lobbying the U.S. Congress to enact a national quota for solar, wind, biomass, and small hydro out as far as the year 2020.”

- Wells, K., ‘As a National Goal, Renewable Energy Has An Uncertain Future’ Wall Street Journal, February 13, 1986, pp. 1, 19.

1990s Solar Hype

“In 1993, a coalition of more than 60 U.S. utilities announced plans, in conjunction with the federal government, to install 50 megawatts of solar cells between 1994 and 200.”

- Christopher Flavin and Nicholas Lenssen, Power Surge (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994), p. 172.

“Federal officials, aware that solar power breakthroughs have shined and faded almost as often as the sun, say the Enron project could introduce commercially competitive technology without expensive Government aid.”

- Allen Myerson, Solar Power, for Earthly Prices, New York Times, November 15, 1994.

“Yet Enron is pledging to deliver the electricity at 5.5 cents a kilowatt-hour in about two years…. Government officials say Enron’s success will encourage the spread of solar power generation here and abroad.”

- Allen Myerson, Solar Power, for Earthly Prices, New York Times, November 15, 1994.

“Solar and wind energy technologies appear to be entering a ‘takeoff’ phase of the kind that personal computers experienced in the early 1980s.”

- Christopher Flavin and Odil Tunali, Climate of Hope: New Strategies for Stabilizing the World’s Atmosphere (Washington: Worldwatch Institute, 1996), p. 48.

21st Century Solar Hype

“Before maybe the end of this decade, I see wind and solar being cost-competitive without subsidy with new fossil fuel,”

- DOE Secretary Stephan Chu, Address to Pew Charitable Trusts, March 23, 2011.

“It is clear that solar and wind are competitive in many situations right now — see Wind now on even playing field with gas and Solar costs may already rival coal. And continued aggressive deployment along with continued R&D will keep driving the price down (see Energy Sec. Chu sees “wind and solar being cost-competitive without subsidy with new fossil fuel” by 2020.”

- Joe Romm, “Fred Hiatt Back to Running Climate and Energy Disinformation from the Likes of Bjorn Lomborg,” April 21, 2011.

6 comments

1 Lionell Griffith { 03.22.12 at 10:46 am }

I see. For over a century, the story was that solar power is going to be a commercial success in only ten years. Followed by, it will only take a few more years of subsidies to make it happen. Every ten years the same story was recycled but this time it is really going to happen….

The really curious thing is we keep falling for the scam. Once, maybe twice I can understand but over and over again? Time I call a halt, NOW! If you want solar energy put YOUR own money into it. Leave me out of it.

2 Jon Boone { 03.22.12 at 11:00 am }

Political energy projects will always be enabled by hucksters using science fiction to gull ignorant good intention. From Al Capp’s kickapoo joy juice, concocted by Lonesome Polecat and Hairless Joe, to Uri Geller’s bent spoons, the phantasmagoric depends upon delusion, which no one cultivates better than Amory Lovins and Joe Romm.

Although virtually all of our “power” comes from the conversion of solar energy, in one form or another, the prospect of mining solar energy for anything other than local applications should give investors, particularly political investors, great pause, given the physical realities involved.

3 The Elephant's Child { 03.22.12 at 6:17 pm }

I would be a lot more convinced by Obama’s enthusiasm for solar and wind, if it weren’t for the coincidence of the presence of his bundlers somewhere in the picture. It’s the Chicago way, to reward your supporters, I guess. I’m glad to have this timeline, which is just about what I would expect.
I have read that the Germans are giving up on solar, and they have found that all that insulation on their houses makes them subject to lots of mold and mildew. So much for sun worship.

4 Scott Brooks { 08.25.12 at 10:33 am }

Greg Rehmke { 03.21.12 at 8:19 pm }

“Let people purchase power from solar if they want. The core problem is government subsidies, tax policies, regulations, and other interventions in the power production and distribution industry.

Washington- Forcing people to pay for stuff they dislike or think immoral really riles people.

This is the crux of government mandate, elected so called elites who claim Washington knows what’s good for you while taking money under the table.

As George Orwell stated:
All businesses are treated equally but some businesses are treated more equally then others. Government has no business picking winners and losers beyond obvious heath, welfare concerns, like regulating heroine or banning meth-cocaine. They dredge up hyped trivial fringe excuses to regulate everything from A to Z, like CO2 claiming it’s a dangerous climate changing gas with little basis for proof or favored scientific hype for the funding game.

We have universities that propagandize enviro socialist elites who continuously tout how big government is good for us and will take care of our needs and concerns. The cure-all for societies problem, more regs, more government mandates. Does a little light bulb switch on?

5 Leo { 11.12.12 at 6:23 pm }

What happens when the supply of oil drops and the demand for oil increases at an almost exponential rate? Are we going to be using coal to run our cars? And what about the climate? There’s no doubt that carbon emissions are having an affect on global climate, so how do we address that? This is all talk, but we have a chance right now to live in a much more sustainable way. And please, answer my questions without the political pandering.

6 rbradley { 11.12.12 at 8:22 pm }

Leo:

I read today that coal-to-liquids is a new industry push/frontier. If coal is cheap and liquids for the transportation market is expensive, relatively speaking, then the market will respond.

On climate-change, Google global lukewarming and MasterResource to see the latest from our Chip Knappenberger.

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