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 that time.

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 into place."

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 electricity consumption.

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 lines."

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 renewable energy."

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," Sargent says.

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 enemies."

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 didn't work."

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.

Environment watch