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The Multi-Billion Dollar Fight Over Who Owns The Sun

Documenting Santa Clara's 1975 plan to keep the sun a public resource

Viktor Drachev /AFP/Getty Images

The city of Santa Clara lies 50 miles south of San Francisco in a robustly sunny valley. As in much of California, rain is concentrated in the winter months, leaving nearly 300 days a year of clear skies. Until now no one paid much attention to the economic value of all that sunshine. But things are changing. By July the city will have completed a new recreation building that will draw about 80 percent of its heating and cooling energy from solar collectors mounted on the roof. After that the city itself will plunge into the solar energy business. “What we see is a city-owned solar utility,” says City Manager Donald Von Raesfeld. “The city will finance and install solar heating and cooling systems in new buildings. Consumers will pay a monthly fee to cover amortization and maintenance of the solar units. This will be done on a nonprofit basis, with the capital raised through municipal bonds.”

Santa Clara isn’t alone in its effort to convert sunshine into useful energy. A recent survey listed 68 US buildings, either completed or near completion, that are getting some or all of their energy from the sun. Dozens of corporations are involved in solar research. The federal government is pouring millions of dollars into solar research and development projects. And while the big commitment of government and industry is still to fossil fuels and nuclear fission, energy from the sun is no longer dismissed as farfetched or far off. According to a Westinghouse study funded by the National Science Foundation, solar heating and cooling of buildings will be economically competitive in most parts of the country by 1985-90, and are already almost competitive in sunny regions like California and Florida. By the end of the century, says the NSF, the sun could provide more than one-third of the energy we use to heat and cool buildings, plus 20 to 30 percent of our electricity needs. It could dramatically reduce peak demands for electricity—mainly for summer air-conditioning — and conserve fossil fuels for petro-chemical uses for which there are no ready substitutes. Congress is equally enthused. Last year it passed five laws dealing wholly or partly with solar energy research, spreading money somewhat chaotically among the NSF, NASA, HUD and a new energy research and development agency. 

The attractions of solar energy are apparent. It doesn’t pollute or otherwise damage the environment. It creates no dangerous waste products such as plutonium. It won’t run out for a few billion years. It can’t be embargoed by Arabs or anyone else. It’s virtually inflation proof once the basic set-up costs are met, and would wondrously improve our balance of payments. The technology involved, while still not perfected, is much less complex than nuclear technology. And of all energy sources the sun is the least amenable to control by cartel-like energy industry. 

Why then has it taken so long to discover the sun? One reason is that the energy contained in sunshine is diffuse and fickle compared to the concentrated energy found in fossil fuels. As long as fossil fuels were plentiful and fairly easy to get at, it was considerably more profitable to collect and sell these stored forms of solar energy than to capture the sun’s current energy emissions. Another reason is the massive commitment of dollars and scientists the US made after World War II to the development of nuclear energy, a commitment that in retrospect appears to have derived at least partly from guilt over having unleashed the atom for destructive purposes, (“If sunbeams were weapons of war, we would have had solar energy centuries ago,” chemist George Porter has observed,) Solar energy is finally looking attractive because fossil fuels are no longer cheap, and because the drawbacks of nuclear fission—its hazards, huge capital costs, and low gains in net energy terms (it takes enormous amounts of energy to build reactors and prepare their fuel)—are now more widely appreciated.

Despite the attractiveness of solar energy, there are barriers to its introduction and use. The oil companies are much more interested in oil, coal, natural gas, uranium and geothermal steam—resources they can control and sell at hefty mark-ups. The electric utilities don’t see much mileage in the highly decentralized uses of solar energy, though they are starting to look at such centralized uses as the generation of electricity on “solar farms” in the desert, and such semi-centralized uses as community-sized heating and cooling systems. The housing industry is traditionally slow to innovate, especially when innovations involve higher initial costs. So if solar energy is to be widely used before the end of the century, it must be pushed by all levels of government. The pushes need to come in four areas: improvement of solar technology, demonstrations of its practicality in different regions of the country, reform of building codes and zoning laws, and provision of incentives such as tax breaks, low-interest loans and outright subsidies. Fortunately things are moving in most of these areas.

The cooling and heating of buildings and water consumes 25 percent of the energy used in the US, and solar technology is already proficient in capturing energy for these purposes. Back in the 1930s and 1940s, solar water heaters were installed on thousands of rooftops in Florida; installation stopped only because natural gas became available at low cost. In Australia, Japan and Israel, solar water heaters are widely used today. The basic concept is simple: water flowing through glass-covered panels is heated by the sun and piped to a storage tank. The hot water is then used directly for bathing and dishwashing, piped through directly for bathing and dishwashing, piped through the house for radiant heating, or used to power an air-conditioning system. Improvements are still needed in the efficiency of solar panels (they could absorb more of the sun’s energy than they currently do) and in the application of heated water to air-conditioning. The federal government is funding research on both these problems and, says Lockheed’s Ken Marshall, an aerospace engineer turned solar researcher, “It’s just a matter of a few years before we have efficient systems adapted to each area of the country.” Cost reductions are also on the horizon as companies move toward mass production, PPG Industries is now selling solar rooftop  panels at about six dollars per square foot; two Israeli manufacturers are exporting panels to the US at about the same price, and General Electric is “looking at the possibility” of getting into the solar panel business. Ultimately the price should fall to around three dollars per square foot.

Photovoltaic cells made from silicon have been used for years to generate electricity in space vehicles; the trouble is that their cost is high and their efficiency is low. Present costs are about $20 per watt; it should be under 20 cents per watt to be competitive with nuclear-generated energy. Dr. Joseph Lindmayer, a leading solar cell expert, believes cost breakthroughs will come as soon as mass production starts, just as has happened with other semiconductor products. That could lead to a proliferation of solar cells on rooftops, generating on-the-spot pollution-free electricity without transmission losses. Here, too, federally funded research is playing an important role, though solar advocates say funding could be substantially increased.

Research in solar thermal conversion—using focused solar energy to drive turbines that generate electricity on a large scale—is being conducted under NSF grants by Westinghouse, Honeywell, the Aerospace Corporation of Los Angeles and a team of scientists at the University of Arizona headed by Aden and Marjorie Meinel, The electric utilities are also privately funding research in solar thermal conversion through the Electrical Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, California, The basic concept, first suggested by the Meinels several years ago, is for giant “solar farms” in the sun-drenched desert of the southwestern US; a variant proposed by Dr, Peter Glaser, vice president of Arthur D, Little, is a solar energy collecting satellite, orbiting in permanent sunlight, that would beam its energy back to a receiving station on earth. Because of the enormous capital outlays involved in both approaches, commercial solar power generation is unlikely before the 1990s.

The focus for the immediate future is on solar heating and cooling. To demonstrate its practicality and to learn more about its on-site performance, the NSF has funded several solar-heated buildings in addition to Santa Clara’s. As the technology improves there’ll be many more government-funded demonstrations. Under the 1974 Solar Heating and Cooling Act, HUD will install solar hardware on as many as 500 houses scattered throughout the country. The aim is to educate architects, builders, construction workers and plumbers as well as the general public. An important part of the education is the concept of life-cycle costing—including future fuel bills in calculating the cost of different heating and cooling systems.

The biggest need is for legislation creating incentives for production and use of solar equipment, and that too is starting to happen. Florida last year passed a law requiring all new single-family residences to be designed to incorporate future installation of solar water heating equipment. Indiana now exempts solar equipment from property taxation, and Arizona allows accelerated depreciation of solar hardware. The California Coastal Conservation Commission has recommended that all new construction in the coastal zone contain solar-assisted heating and cooling systems as soon as the necessary equipment is on the market, and Santa Clara officials are talking about a city ordinance that would do the same thing. Incentives at the federal level—a tax break equal in magnitude to the oil depletion allowance, or low-interest loans patterned after the rural electrification program of the 1930s—would dramatically accelerate the solarization of America. In Japan many local governments provide 5.5 percent loans for installation of solar equipment, and some throw in grants of up to 30 percent of initial costs. 

The idea of subsidies for solar energy is being pushed by citizens’ groups in several parts of the country. One such group, the Alternative Energy Resources Organization (AERO), is made up of Montana farmers and ranchers. AERO is calling for a federal tax-free production allowance for solar and wind energy similar to the oil depletion allowance, and is pressing the Montana legislature to use revenues from coal extraction to support development of nonpolluting renewable energy sources. AERO’s vision was summed up by Egan O’Connor, a solar energy expert, at the Montana alternative energy conference last May: “Imagine Montana telling other states to develop solar energy too instead of ripping up Montana for coal. Imagine Montana 10 years from now without strip-mining, without dead rivers and water starvation, without radioactive pollution and the threat of atomic terrorism. Imagine a Montana which would still sparkle, thanks to solar energy.”

As Americans look to sunshine to fill more of their energy needs, a critical question will be: who will control the sun? The answer depends on such things as control of desert land, patents and the kinds of solar technology that predominate. Fortunately there is an opportunity to develop solar energy the way Santa Clara is proceeding—by the public, on a nonprofit basis. Most of the desert lands in the Southwest are owned by the federal government or Indian tribes. Because most solar research is government-funded, the government can license nonexclusively most of the advances in technology This could lead to a highly competitive solar hardware industry, similar to the semiconductor and building supply industries. If the most common ways of capturing sunshine are decentralized—i.e., rooftop panels and photovoltaic cells—then a significant portion of America’s energy could be owned by and could go directly to its users, without passing through corporate hands. 

On the other hand, there are ways the energy corporations and utilities can get hold of the sun. At least three oil companies—Mobil, Exxon and Shell—are conducting research in photovoltaic cells, presumably with an eye toward controlling the eventual market through patents. The electric utilities are starting to think about how they might lease desert land and generate electricity through centralized solar thermal plants. (If the Southwest desert is used for solar electric generation, it ought to be done by a “solar TVA.”) Another approach being considered by utilities is the “renting” of solar heating and cooling equipment, much the way the telephone company “rents” telephones. Thus a utility would retain ownership of the system and charge a monthly rate that would cover amortization and maintenance plus a profit. 

Utilities might also profit from the sun through alteration of existing rate structures. Because there’s no known remedy for bad weather, decentralized solar energy systems must plug into centralized electric or gas systems for back-up. Utilities argue that if solar energy becomes widespread, they’ll still have to maintain big load capacities for periods of inclement weather, but won’t be able to defray all their capital costs through sale of energy in fair weather. Therefore, they say, they’d be entitled to a “commitment charge,” based on how much back-up energy a consumer “reserves,” in addition to an actual usage rate.

The way solar energy is controlled will probably be determined within the next decade. The stakes are high, since energy from sunshine will be a multi-billion dollar a year business by the end of the century. Donald Von Raesfeld, Santa Clara’s city manager, believes “the sun is one resource the public ought to get hold of as soon as possible.” At a conference of the National League of Cities last month, he urged cities to take the lead by getting into the solar utility business themselves. So far, however, very few cities, states or federal agencies have given much thought to how to keep the sun a public resource.