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America Could Have Dropped Big Oil Decades Ago -- What Happened?

Renewables are still just scraping by, while we're beholden to dirty fossil fuels. An important history lesson explains why.
 
 
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This story is not new. Today, solar energy is picking up momentum. But despite the current numbers and the recent raves, the solar saga, and that of renewable energy as a whole, has been going on for decades. It is a history of false starts and stutter steps.

First, the good news. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), 2011 showed record-breaking numbers for U.S. solar installations. The industry's best year ever saw demand rise by 109 percent over the previous year. With tremendous incentives and benefits for homeowners, and as prices continue to decline, the future looks bright for this alternative energy source.

However a quick glance to the past throws harsh light on the fact that we've been at this precipice before. In 1978, the White House Council on Environmental Quality issued this glowing statement: "Our conclusion is that with a strong national commitment to accelerated solar development and use, it should be possible to derive a quarter of U.S. energy from solar by the year 2000. For the year 2020 and beyond, it is now possible to speak hopefully, and unblushingly, of the United States becoming a solar society."

The key words here being " strong national commitment," because just as timber, coal, oil, gas, and nuclear received enormously strong federal support, solar needs the same kind of government backing, which as of yet, the sector has not seen. The statement should instead read, We could become a solar society, if only we wanted to become a solar society.

The process of generating electricity directly from sunlight, known as photovoltaic (PV) effect was first observed in Paris by 19-year-old Alexandre Edmund Becquerel in 1839. Albert Einstein won his only Nobel Prize for his discovery of the law of photoelectric effect, which was an integral part of future photovoltaic technology. After groundbreaking PV research at Bell Labs in the 1950s, it was finally in the '70s, when a combination of American spirit and ingenuity met simple necessity to bring modern solar technologies to the forefront as a power source. The trigger was the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 and 1974. Out of this crisis, came the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974, and then formation of Energy Research and Development Administration, (ERDA), which would in later years become the Department of Energy. The goal of ERDA, which had an initial budget of $4.3 billion, was to bring together all the efforts devoted to energy research and development, including solar, under one umbrella. Or in the law's wording to use "all energy sources to meet the needs of present and future generations... to make the nation self-sufficient in energy."

Despite the initiatives, high oil prices and fuel shortages continued to plague the United States throughout the '70s.

Deadly Cold

January 1977. Nationwide, factories were shutting down and workers were being laid off. The cause was harsh winter temperatures and a country running out of fuel. The human toll of the oil and natural gas shortage and brutal weather was coming to bear. A newly elected president spoke of a " permanent, very serious energy shortage."

In the eastern states it was the coldest winter on record in almost a century. Gas companies such as Consolidated Edison Company were shutting off supplies to customers just as the Arctic air plummeted the mercury lower and forced demand higher. Temperatures on the streets of New York City vacillated between 1 below and 12 degrees above Fahrenheit. At welfare hotels across New York City, tenants (some of whom ended up perishing) were forced to go without heat for weeks at a time due to unpaid bills on their part or on behalf of absentee landlords, many of whom were disinclined to make necessary repairs even if the bills were paid.

 
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