Moment in the Sun: The Future of Solar Energy

The fluorescent lights flicker dimly overhead as Ben Gravely surveys the floor of his machine shop. Outside the sun is shining, but it has been years since daylight penetrated this cavernous space in North Raleigh, N.C. where Gravely builds solar hot water heaters.Gravely's patented system of panels and pumps and valves earned him $1 million in one year, back when business was booming in the mid-1980s. In those days it seemed like everyone wanted a solar heater. Gravely installed them all over the state -- at car washes, cafeterias, nursing homes, apartment complexes, high schools, motels, even highway rest stops and veterinary clinics.Today the equipment in the shop stands idle. Seven black solar collectors lean against the back wall, gathering dust. A notebook bulging with sketches of electrical circuits lays open on a table near the remains of a rusted-out water tank."I don't sell but a couple a year now," Gravely says. "This year I may sell five or 10 systems total."Confronted by this scrapyard of seldom-used tools and abandoned parts, it is hard to remember how bright the future once seemed for solar energy. After the Middle East embargo sparked an "oil crisis" in 1973, expert after expert came forward to assure a panicked nation that the sun would soon solve our every energy need. We would eat breakfast courtesy of our solar toasters in homes that heated and cooled themselves, before driving off to work in sleek bubble cars that sped along on the clean, pure energy of the sun.So where is all that cool stuff they promised us? Whatever happened to solar energy? The questions involve more than mere nostalgia for an unrealized dream. Understanding the failures of our solar past sheds light on the potential of our solar present. Many obstacles to solar energy still exist -- but so do the opportunities it offers to save money on energy costs, reduce pollution and toxic waste, and improve the environments in which we live and work.In the Triangle, a small group of inventors, architects, researchers and homeowners who call themselves "survivors" quietly continue to explore ways to tap the largest and most democratic source of power in the solar system. Their perseverance has helped earn North Carolina a national reputation as a leader in solar energy research and development. "Nobody knows why I have hung on," says Gravely, standing in his silent shop. "To tell you the truth, I don't know why I have. I guess I feel that if I can keep it going and keep the process alive, someday it will come back. The value of solar has not gone down at all. It's just waiting for a higher level of public awareness about energy problems and solutions."The push for solar energy in the 1970s started with something sure to get the public's attention -- higher prices at the pump. Not long after the oil embargo hiked gasoline prices by $1 a gallon, the Nixon administration identified solar as a key component in its national plan to reduce American dependence on foreign oil. A panel created by NASA and the National Science Foundation concluded in 1973 that solar energy could heat and cool a tenth of the nation's buildings by 2000, and more than a third by 2020. Suddenly the gold rush was on. Backyard hobbyists who had been tinkering with solar applications for years were quickly pushed aside by a big-budget, big-industry scramble to cash in on the sun. Some of the schemes were decidedly absurd: The New York Times featured a story on an inventor who had patented a vibrating ski slope that used ultrasonic motors powered by the sun. Other plans were more breathtaking in their scope: One major firm lofted a multi-billion-dollar proposal for an orbiting space station to collect solar energy and transmit it via microwave beams to giant 55,000-acre antenna farms on Earth. Unfortunately, such high-tech, gee-whiz plans dwarfed smaller, low-tech approaches to solar energy that offered the best hope for the future. The simplest and cheapest -- known as passive solar systems -- focused on designing and constructing buildings to capture and store sunlight for heating. Slightly more complex approaches -- called active solar systems -- used devices like pumps, fans and solar collectors mounted on rooftops to heat water and homes. Not surprisingly, such low-tech approaches to reducing energy consumption didn't appeal to oil companies and energy utilities. To counter competition from the sun, they began using tax dollars to develop "solar farms" -- huge, centralized power plants that would use photovoltaic cells to collect the sun's energy and convert it into electricity for resale to homes and businesses. Government and industry had "a Buck Rogers vision of fancy technology," says Ray Reece, author of The Sun Betrayed. "Solar energy would be developed by the same corporations, at the same rate of profit, who had earlier brought us nuclear bombs and power plants, saturn rockets and leaky off-shore oil rigs." When the Energy Research and Development Administration was established in 1975, half of all federal funds devoted to solar energy were supposed to go to small businesses. Instead, ERDA awarded barely 7 percent of its first $94 million to companies with fewer than 1,000 employees. The rest went to big firms like General Electric, which pocketed $2.8 million, and Martin Marietta, which collected $3.5 million."The solar industry in Washington was dominated by high-tech NASA bureaucrats and people laid off during the recession in the aerospace industry," says Wayne Place, an architecture professor at N.C. State University who worked for the Department of Energy. "These were people who came through a program where they were never asked, 'What's it cost and is it cost-effective?'" With big defense contractors calling the shots, much of the solar-energy funds went to big-ticket items with inflated price tags. Solar hot water heaters developed by Exxon, for example, cost $12,500 at a time when small companies manufactured similar systems for $926."ERDA contracts for research and development are profitable," reported in 1977. Government funding "offers recipients the chance to build a major new business at taxpayer expense." One Senate aide was more blunt. "ERDA's being addressed up here now as the new technological pork barrel. It's ridiculous the way some of these guys are ripping the country off. There is no contract management over there -- it's carte blanche." By 1980, major corporations owned eight of the nine largest photovoltaic firms in the nation and 12 of the 25 largest companies making active solar collectors.As the energy industry cashed in on solar research, it also waged a public-relations campaign to discredit the potential of solar energy. Honeywell Corp. received $1.1 million from ERDA in 1976 to tour the country in a van equipped with high-tech solar exhibits. The "Transportable Solar Laboratory" attracted as many as 3,000 visitors a day. Honeywell tour guides awed them with hardware, while dismissing passive solar systems -- the kind that might actually save consumers money -- as "caveman technology." "People who live in passive houses are very different than you and I," a guide told visitors at one stop. "Sometimes they are hot and sometimes they are cold." The line drew a big laugh from the crowd.Despite industry efforts to discredit the sun, federal funds did enable many dedicated researchers to explore the potential of solar power. "There was a lot of really good work going on," recalls Larry Shirley, executive director of the N.C. Solar Center, a state-sponsored clearinghouse for solar education and research. "We were right on the verge of seeing solar contribute substantially to national energy needs." Shirley pauses. "Then we had an election."When Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, federal funds for solar research totaled $650 million annually. By 1986, the budget had been slashed to less than $100 million. Reagan also decimated the fledgling solar industry by eliminating federal tax credits for solar water heaters. "There was no warning," says Shirley. "They were here Dec. 31 and they were gone Jan. 1. Over the next two years, 85 percent of that industry went belly up."Like other manufacturers of solar water heaters, Ben Gravely was enjoying his best year ever when Reagan wiped out the tax credits. "GE, Exxon and Mobil were all in the solar business, and I could beat the pants off any of them," he says. "I loved to compete with the big guys because they didn't know what they were doing. Then Reagan cut our throats."The budget slashing set back solar alternatives by years. But the solar industry also hurt itself by downplaying passive designs in favor of active -- and less reliable -- systems that relied on pumps and fans and photovoltaic cells. Consumers got the impression that alternatives like solar water heaters were too expensive and required too much tinkering. When tax credits disappeared and high-tech corporate dreams of orbiting solar collectors and vibrating ski slopes never materialized, many in the public wrote off solar energy as a passing fad -- something embraced only by sandal-wearing environmentalists who like to demonstrate solar ovens at Earth Day festivals."In general, the perception among architects and builders is that solar is dead, so why bother?" says Giles Blunden, architect and president of the N.C. Solar Energy Association. "That discourages consumers. If people think it doesn't work, they don't want to spend the money." Today the goals of widespread solar heating and cooling remain more vision than reality. In North Carolina, fewer than 1 percent of all homes rely on the sun for energy. The United States is more dependent on imported oil now than it was at the height of the "energy crisis." All but one of the U.S. companies developed at taxpayer expense to build solar electric panels have been sold to Japanese and German firms -- and 70 percent of the panels they produce here are shipped to developing nations, where they are used to bring power to isolated rural homes."It's one of the ironies of solar that it's cost-effective to put a water heater on the roof of a Habitat for Humanity house in Uganda, but it's not cost-effective to do it here in North Carolina," says Shirley.Just as the high price of oil once sparked the solar boom, the relatively low cost of energy today has helped quench it. While Reagan was quick to cut funds for solar energy, he was careful to preserve federal subsidies for fossil fuels. By keeping the cost of oil, coal and natural gas artificially low, the subsidies make the need for solar seem less urgent. Taxpayers spend $54 billion each year to provide military protection for oil transported from the Middle East, and the government has contributed nearly $3 billion to develop new coal-burning technologies.Consumers also pay for hidden energy costs when they go to the doctor or buy food. The American Lung Association estimates that burning coal adds $82 billion in health-care costs each year, and pollution from coal-fired plants causes at least $6 billion in annual crop damages. All told, studies indicate that such subsidized costs exceed $250 billion a year -- enough to add 65 cents to the price of every energy dollar."If it was a free market, I believe that solar would dominate," says Mike Nicklas, an architect and past president of the International Solar Energy Society. "But it isn't a free market. We give unbelievable subsidies to oil and coal and natural gas. My hope is not for more incentives for us, but for fewer incentives for them."Wayne Place of N.C. State agrees. As a staff member at the Department of Energy from 1976 to 1986, he worked on a report that called for an end to federal support for fossil fuels as a way to promote solar energy. "Our argument was basically if we eliminated federal subsidies that prompt people to squander fossil fuels because they're so cheap, there would be no need to rely on federal subsidies to commercialize passive solar," he recalls. "There would be no need for the government to do anything."The report went up the chain of command in the Solar Division, then over to the Fossil Fuel Division, and then came back to Place. "There was a little note attached," he remembers. "It said, 'Let the fossil fuel people handle fossil fuel and you handle solar.'"Near a string of high-power lines on the campus of N.C. State, a modest two-story house offers a glimpse of what our solar present could have looked like. The Solar House serves as headquarters for the N.C. Solar Center, as well as a working model of how solar technology can be utilized in a traditional home. It places the focus of solar energy where it should have been all along--on simple, low-cost methods of letting natural light and heat into homes, schools and offices.Larry Shirley, the director of the center, walks through the house pointing out features that emphasize the simplicity of its passive solar design. Large windows on the south side let in lots of winter sunlight, which is absorbed by bricks walls and tile floors. This "thermal mass" releases the warmth gradually, storing enough energy to heat the house for three days. On a sunny winter afternoon, the temperature indoors hovers near 70 degrees. The total annual heating bill averages $70 for more than 2,000 square feet. In the field behind the house where snow is melting, Shirley points to active solar elements on the roof. Three panels use the sun to pre-heat water before it reaches a traditional water heater, cutting down on energy costs. Another eight panels collect sunlight and convert it into electricity, supplying more than half the power needs of the house."This is not rocket science at all," says Shirley, who was recently elected chair of the American Solar Energy Society, a leading advocacy group. "Most solar building involves really basic concepts. Unfortunately, they're just not standard practice any longer. A lot of it got lost along the way."Shirley estimates there are 5,000 passive solar homes in the state, and 25,000 with active solar systems for water and space heating. That's more than in many other states, but a far cry from the solar visions of the 1970s. Part of the problem is that active solar systems often cost homebuilders and owners an additional investment of several thousand dollars up front. North Carolina helps offset the initial cost with tax credits of up to $1,500 for homes and $25,000 for businesses -- support for solar offered by few other states."North Carolina has some of the best solar tax credits in the nation," says Paul Maycock, who managed the photovoltaics division of the Department of Energy under President Carter. "If you had to rank order states on the East Coast, it's probably the most progressive when it comes to solar energy."Across town from the Solar House stands Durant Middle School. From the outside, it looks like a typical public school -- long, stolid and surrounded by parking. But venture inside, and the difference becomes apparent.Even though the day is dreary and overcast, sunlight from overhead windows suffuses classrooms, the library and the gym. When the light falls below required levels, sensors automatically activate electric lights to compensate.The school is designed to incorporate a relatively new solar approach known as daylighting, pioneered in part by Wayne Place and other researchers at N.C. State. Unlike earlier designs that use solar energy to heat and cool buildings, daylighting relies on the sun for illumination. By cutting the need for electric lights, daylighting also cuts the cost of air conditioning needed to reduce the considerable heat that lights generate.At Durant, the concept saves taxpayers money. Although it cost an additional $230,000 to install daylighting, the solar features cut energy costs by $165,000 a year -- a whopping 60 percent reduction in overall energy use. Studies also show that natural lighting creates a more positive mood in students, increasing attendance, test scores and physical health."I have worked in seven or eight schools, and this building has less of an institutional feel by far than any other school I've worked in," says Principal Tom Benton. "The lighting makes it more people-friendly. We're already making assignments for next year, and teachers are actually lobbying for the daylit rooms."Durant, as well as four daylit schools in Cumberland County, were designed by Mike Nicklas, the Raleigh architect. As he goes for a spin in his solar car -- a silver Pontiac Fiero equipped with solar panels on the hood and golf-cart batteries in the trunk -- Nicklas talks excitedly about a new project he is working on. Using a model being tested behind the Solar House, Nicklas plans to integrate solar electric panels into buildings for Central Carolina Bank and Applebee's restaurant. "The panels will do more than produce electricity," he says. "They'll be a part of the skin of the building. That reduces construction costs and cuts the payback period by 10 years. We're also taking heat that builds up behind the panels and using it to heat the buildings. That cuts the payback by another 10 years."Such low-cost alternatives would be much more widespread, Nicklas adds, if it weren't for the power of the oil industry. "If they were to invest the amount of one of their wells in a photovoltaic plant, they could reduce the cost per kilowatt by half," he says. "Why isn't that happening? It's not a lack of demand -- we can't meet the worldwide demand. It's because the oil industry wants to control the growth of photovoltaics so it doesn't hurt their business."Richard Harkrader, an architect in Durham, has built more than 100 solar houses and apartments in the area. Most feature simple passive designs, with spacious windows, brick floors and good insulation. "It's pretty straightforward, common-sense stuff," he says. "A myth developed that solar costs more, but it ain't so." His own home, built in 1972, continues to cost just $50 a year to heat, and his solar water heater supplies his family with all the hot water they need six months of the year.With energy prices at artificially low levels these days, Harkrader and other solar advocates prefer to emphasize the environmental and aesthetic benefits of solar energy over its economic advantages. Harkrader also points to an emerging movement known as "green building," which strives to create homes that are healthier for people and the environment. "It's not just about solar anymore," he says. "Green builders try to avoid chemicals, reduce the destruction of forests, and use durable and recyclable materials."Ray Reece, author of The Sun Betrayed, welcomes the trend. "A lot of activists who got into solar in the late '70s have broadened to a much more comprehensive view of energy production and consumption that includes resource efficiency -- what goes into building a home or planning a city," he says. "A lot of us have expanded our perspective from solar collectors to city planning."In the Triangle, homeowners are incorporating solar designs into planned communities known as co-housing. "Doing it in a neighborhood setting makes people feel comfortable about doing it," says architect Giles Blunden. "No one wants to be considered weird, and when it comes to real estate no one wants to invest $100,000 in being weird. There's safety in numbers." For now, though, the number of people relying on solar energy remains small. Advocates like Blunden continue to push for the practical parts of the solar plan sketched out a quarter-century ago. They hope a national exhibit of solar products will help educate the public and rekindle interest in solar energy. But without a concerted effort by government and industry to convert to solar, their predictions tend to sound like wishful thinking. North Carolina has set a goal of increasing its reliance on renewable energy sources including wind, water and wood to 20 percent by 2010. That's pretty much the same national goal outlined by NASA more than 20 years ago -- and we're no closer to reaching it than we were then."Eventually solar will have the same momentum that computers have," says Blunden, sounding optimistic. "There's bound to be more and more problems with aging nuclear reactors, and global warming is increasing. Those kinds of things are going to make a more sustainable, low-impact alternative essential. I'm confident it will change, even if it's disheartening to see how slowly."

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