Here Comes the Sun
Whatever happened to soIar energy?
by Eric Weltman
In These Times magazine, February 2000
Looking back, the worst of the '70s-polyester, Nixon, disco-is
remembered, even celebrated. But it's forgotten that in the same
decade, amidst the oil shocks and nuclear debacles, the future
seemed to belong to solar energy. Indeed, with gas-guzzling SUVs
clogging our roads, it's difficult to remember the urgency of
There even once was a day called Sun Day. The idea, recalls
organizer Denis Hayes, was "to convey to the American public
that there are options, that it is possible to run a modem industrial
state on sunshine." On May 3, 1978, Sun Day began with a
sunrise ceremony at the United Nations led by Ambassador Andrew
Young and continued with hundreds of events across the country.
President Carter used the occasion to announce an additional $100
million in federal solar spending and the installation of a solar
water heater on the White House roof. The White House Council
on Environmental Quality ambitiously declared, "A national
goal of providing significantly more than half of our energy by
solar sources by the year 2020 should be achievable."
But then the '80s happened. With the election of Ronald Reagan,
solar energy entered a dark age of malign neglect. Reagan eliminated
tax credits for solar energy and removed the solar panels from
the White House roof. Federal research-and-development funding
for solar power fell from $557 million in 1980 to $81 million
in 1990. At the same time, oil prices plummeted, diminishing demand
for alternatives and taking energy off the agenda of the nation
and much of the environmental movement. "If oil had remained
expensive," Hayes says, "everything would have fallen
Consequently, things now look a lot different than the sunny
optimists of the '70s predicted. Consumers pay more for a gallon
of bottled water than they do for a gallon of gas, while, at $20
a ton, coal is cheaper than topsoil. The universe of renewable
energy sources-including solar, wind and geothermal power (but
not hydroelectric)-provides only 2.1 percent of the nation's electricity.
The future isn't much brighter: Absent any new policies, according
to federal projections, by 2020 renewable energy is expected to
provide just 3 percent of the nation's electricity.
Of course, the problems of fossil fuels toxic spills, mining
waste, acid rain, smog, etc.-haven't gone away. Meanwhile, a new
problem has emerged: global climate change, with its multiple
threats of rising sea levels, disrupting agriculture, increasing
weather-related disasters and spreading infectious diseases. The
scientific consensus is that climate change is happening, and
its chief source is carbon dioxide released by the combustion
of fossil fuels. The United States accounts for about a quarter
of the world's energy consumption, so it's no surprise that this
country also is responsible for 24 percent of carbon dioxide emissions-the
largest source of which is power plants.
In the past, the world would have turned to the United States
for renewable energy solutions. After all, the United States invented
photovoltaic (PV) panels, devices that turn sunlight into electricity,
and, in the '80s, California produced more than 90 percent of
the world's wind energy. But the torch has been seized by Europe
and Japan, which support renewable energy with a range of tax
benefits, mandates and pricing programs. In fact, the European
Union prohibits subsidies for fuels other than renewables. Meanwhile,
according to the Worldwatch Institute, wind power is the most
rapidly growing source of energy in the world, increasing 20 percent
per year since 1990. The Danes have captured half of the market
for wind technologies.
But the potential for renewables remains great in the United
States. The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) claims
that PV panels covering 0.3 percent of the country, a quarter
of the land occupied by railroads, could provide all of the nation's
electricity. Likewise, the 11 states stretching between North
Dakota and Texas have been dubbed the "Saudi Arabia of wind
energy," with enough gusts to supply more than the nation's
The American public continues to support renewable energy
in survey after survey. Yet renewables face the continued obstacle
of the political power of the utility, nuclear and fossil fuels
industries. That clout has translated, among other things, into
billions of dollars in subsidies in the form of federal research
and development, tax benefits and ratepayer bailouts. However,
there are several reasons that renewables may finalIy earn their
day in the sun. One is the rising concern over the global climate
change, which has spurred the interest of environmental organizations
and the foundations that fund them. Another is the restructuring
of the electric utility industry.
A growing number of states are dismantling the monopolies
that have controlled the entire process of electricity generation
and distribution, and Congress is contemplating national restructuring
legislation. Large industrial customers tout the lower energy
prices they say will result from opening up the market to competition.
Environmentalists see opportunities, perils and problems in the
rush to deregulate.
Deregulation has allowed some consumers to choose "green
energy." Since electricity from all sources is mixed up in
the utility grid, no one can guarantee that a particular home
will receive "green electrons." However, consumers can
sign up to pay their bills to companies that generate their electricity
from renewable sources. In California, the municipal governments
of San Diego, Santa Monica and San Jose, as well as the Los Angeles
Dodgers, have opted for green power.
The vision of true energy independence-households generating
their own energy-has been advanced by developments in PV "solar
roofing shingles." A top item on the solar industry's wish
list is federal legislation requiring "net metering,"
which would allow solar-powered homes to cut their bills by sending
extra electricity to utilities and running their meters backward.
Meanwhile, David Morris of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance
advocates more research and development in batteries that could
store excess "home-grown" energy, which could "potentially
make obsolete a trillion dollars in transmission and distribution
But environmentalists are quick to point out the limits of
green consumerism. First, utilities are insisting that ratepayers
bail them out for billions of dollars invested in nuclear boondoggles
that would otherwise die a quick death in a competitive market.
Furthermore, since California's markets opened up in 1998, only
1 percent of the state's consumers have chosen green energy-and
that's with a subsidy scheduled to end in 2001. The most optimistic
marketers expect that 20 percent of residential customers and
10 percent of commercial customers will choose green power. As
Rob Sargent of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group
(PIRG) notes, "The utilities would like nothing better than
to use consumer choice as an argument against policies requiring
The utilities argue that in a competitive marketplace there
should be no restrictions on giving customers what they want:
cheap power. But environmentalists counter that the price of this
power doesn't include the environmental costs born by society,
including dirty air, dangerous wastes and climate change. Their
concern that a focus on narrow, short-term costs could have dire
social consequences has already been realized: utilities have
slashed investments in energy efficiency by half since the mid-'90s.
Environmentalists have fought some tenacious state-by-state
battles to incorporate green energy policies into utility restructuring,
with mixed results. Fourteen states have established "public
benefits trusts," which tax electricity use to fund renewable
energy, energy efficiency and low-income energy programs. Eleven
states require that a certain percentage of their electricity
be generated by renewables, but these "Renewable Portfolio
Standards" (RPS) are largely unambitious. For example, Arizona
requires that solar energy supply just 1 percent of the state's
power by 2002.
In Congress, environmentalists are supporting a bill introduced
by Vermont Republican Sen. Jim Jeffords to add a shade of green
to federal restructuring legislation. The bill would establish
an RPS of 20 percent renewable energy use (excluding hydropower)
by 2020, create a public benefits trust, require utilities to
tell consumers how much pollution they produce and place a cap
on emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants. It's a much
more ambitious bill than the Clinton administration's, which would
establish an RPS of only 7.5 percent by 2010. But the Jeffords
bill doesn't have universal support among environmentalists, some
of whom criticize its failure to prohibit nuclear bailouts and
its allowance of emissions trading.
The biggest problem, though, is that it doesn't stand a chance
of passing. The bill doesn't even have the full support of the
151-member House Renewable Energy Caucus or the newly formed 24-member
Senate caucus. "If you took a vote today," says Ken
Bossong of the Sun Day Campaign, "it would go down in flames."
The bill's poor prospects, Bossong says, stem from the lack
of grassroots momentum behind it. Scott Denman of the Safe Energy
Communication Council adds, "The movement needs to develop
a political base and be much more politically aggressive."
Energy advocacy lost its populist edge in the '80s, Sargent
says, when environmentalists and utilities began collaborating,
chiefly to promote investments in energy efficiency. Getting a
"seat at the table" was a positive thing, he says, but
it encouraged environmentalists to forget that "our power
is derived from the size of our constituency, not from our access."
Environmentalists trying to overcome this mistake face several
key challenges. Today's movement lacks the built-in activist base
of opponents to nuclear power that existed in the '70s, when more
than 50 nuclear power plants were . under construction. Now energy
is so far off society's radar screen, most people don't even know
where their power comes from. "Most people we talk to think
their electricity comes from hydropower," says Andrea Kavanagh
of the National Environmental Trust (NET).
The most ambitious effort to re-energize the movement is Earth
Day 2000, chaired by Hayes, an original Earth Day and Sun Day
organizer. The focus of Earth Day 2000 is energy and Hayes hopes
that the month-long series of events will provide a spark missing
from the issue. Lacking the immediate context of an energy crisis
or the Three-Mile Island disaster, he says, "we kind of have
to create the timeliness of the issue ourselves."
His Earth Day Network claims to have nearly 3,000 groups in
163 countries involved thus far and boasts a flagship event on
the mall in Washington on April 22 featuring actor Leonardo DiCaprio.
The Earth Day agenda-endorsed by about 500 organizations, including
the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and U.S. PIRG-calls
for quadrupling federal investments in renewable energy and efficiency
in five years and halting subsidies for fossil fuels and nuclear
power, with a goal of producing at least one-third of the nation's
energy from renewables by 2020. In the "changed environment"
after Earth Day 2000, Hayes hopes, there will an opportunity for
the environmental movement to achieve such goals.
Not everyone shares his optimism, however. Kalee Kreider of
NET acknowledges the tremendous boost recycling received from
Earth Day 1980's focus on solid waste, but says she's "not
going to plan on a similar bounce for energy." Citing the
lack of infrastructure to build on any momentum, Bossong predicts,
"A lot of money will be spent, a modest amount of media coverage
will be generated and probably nothing will happen."
That said, Bossong himself maintains a database of about 1,000
organizations across the country that have some level of involvement
in clean energy issues, including several national outfits with
extensive field operations. PIRG, with 27 state-based organizations
and six U.S. PIRG field offices, has campaigns to clean up dirty
power plants and promote clean energy. The Sierra Club, with 65
chapters, is focusing its energy program on transportation. Ozone
Action has paired up with the International Council on Local Environmental
Initiatives to help municipal officials take
The new kid on the block is NET, a group started by the Pew
Charitable Trusts in 1994, which organized a "Pollution Solutions"
bus tour of 36 cities this fall to demonstrate how people can
consume less energy. "You have to build people toward political
action," Kreider says. "Most people, as a first dipping
of their toes in the energy issue, are not prepared to slam their
senator or take on a multinational corporation."
In addition to national organizations, Bossong's database
includes approximately 800 state and regional organizations, from
the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association to the Northwest
Energy Coalition. Local activists-whether they're campaigning
to clean up dirty power plants in Massachusetts or to stop nuclear
waste storage in Minnesota-are ready to be plugged into national
clean energy initiatives. "These battles are creating a constituency
for clean energy in a way that I've not seen in a long time,"
Of course, some groups differ on how the movement should proceed.
The NRDC's Ralph Cavanaugh cautions that the fossil fuel industry
is "not monolithic," pointing to the key support of
some utilities in winning a recent extension of wind energy tax
credits and British Petroleum's ownership of one of the nation's
largest PV manufacturers. While acknowledging that the coal mining
industry has been "unsupportive," Cavanaugh notes that
it "is a declining force both economically and politically."
He says, "I don't find a lot of organized opposition to renewable
energy in general."
But don't tell that to U.S. PIRG, Friends of the Earth or
Taxpayers for Common Sense, who have been battling to reduce federal
subsidies for fossil fuels. The fiscal year 2000 budget contains
$1.5 million more for coal research and development than last
year, a total of $124 million. Likewise, Rebecca Stanfield of
U.S. PIRG maintains that the utility industry's opposition to
a national renewables mandate has been "relentless."
Sargent adds, "There are some in the environmental community
who place too much faith in the goodwill and enlightenment of
corporate leaders and are unwilling to point the finger at our
Another question is what place renewable energy has in the
environmental movement's clean air agenda. Many environmentalists,
some reluctantly, acknowledge that relying more on natural gas,
which contains less carbon and other pollutants than coal and
oil, is essential to combat global climate change. But a NET fact
sheet-to the chagrin of other advocates-goes so far as to declare
natural gas a "solution for today," while renewable
energy is a "solution for tomorrow."
There are also different views on how fast the renewable energy
industry can increase production to meet clean air needs. "You
can only ramp up new technologies and industries so fast without
creating bottlenecks, increasing costs and creating a backlash,"
argues Alan Nogee of the Union of Concemed Scientists, who supports
the RPS standard in the Jeffords bill. Ironically, he points to
nuclear power "as a really good example of an industry that
created a lot of its own problems by growing too fast." Hayes
disagrees: "Technically, we can do pretty much what we want
to pay to do."
The real issue is political will: The political environment
for renewables is not good. Clinton's hallmark has been programs
that are big on pronouncements and goals but lack the cash to
translate them into action. Members of Congress can greenwash
themselves by joining their green energy caucus and then, as Denman
says, "stab sustainable energy in the back." The fiscal
year 2000 budget of $247 million for renewables research and development
is a decrease of nearly $20 million from last year, which Scott
Sklar of SEIA blames on pre-election shenanigans by congressional
Republicans trying to embarrass Vice President Al Gore. However,
the environmentalists' own budget recommendations also were down
from the previous year. "We slightly tempered our request
to make sure we were politically relevant," Sklar says. "It
The problem with what is politically relevant is that it may
not be enough to save the planet. The Jeffords bill, for example,
would freeze utility carbon dioxide emissions at 2000 levels by
2020, while scientists say that emissions reductions of more than
60 percent are necessary to stabilize carbon levels in the atmosphere-and
the sooner those cuts are made, the better. Ross Gelbspan, author
of The Heat Is On, a best-selling book on global warming, charges
that environmental organizations involved in the climate change
negotiations "are more concerned with their access to government
officials than solving the problems with global warming."
To counter this troubling disconnect, Gelbspan and a group
of energy experts have proposed their own "World Energy Modernization
Plan." The plan calls for the creation of a 0.25 percent
tax on international currency transactions, yielding $150 to $200
billion for a fund to promote the global adoption of renewable
and energy efficient technologies. "Even if people reject
the details of the plan," Gelbspan says, "our hope is
that it communicates the scope and scale of what's needed to deal
with this crisis. The science on what needs to be done is unambiguous."
Eric Weltman is a writer and activist in Cambridge, Massachusetts.