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The Solar Initiative: 35 Years in the Non-Making

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It was back in the 1970's that President Jimmy Carter had Solar Panels installed on the roof of the White House, the type that heated hot water. This event came at the height of arguably the most successful Grass Roots Campaign ever seen in America: The Ecology Movement. This truly "bottom-up" and widely based movement was responsible for more far-reaching legislation passed (in sheer volume), than even the Civil Rights and Womens' Rights movements; which were also highly important grass roots successes proving the Power of the People when roused. And the Ecology Movement did most of this within a few years; and by uniting many people across the entire political spectrum together on a single issue that broke Party and social barriers. It accomplished wonderful things: By cleaning up the Great Lakes and a thousand water ways that many had declared "dead", and by instituting real, meaningful air pollution controls that allowed people to go outside safely on hot and still days again.  It wasn't perfect, and it wasn't "forever" (as we have seen recent legislation attempts in 2011 to partially dismantle these victories, and there were periods when many of the laws for air and water pollution were not well enforced and often openly broken): But it was still, beyond doubt, successful beyond expectations and represented a huge defeat for the polluters... who it is important to remember, back in those days also had many politicians in their pockets and a great deal of political power in Washington. It was one of our greatest Grass Roots Victories in the history of the planet; and concerned, engaged, and caring people can be proud of what was once collectively accomplished against all odds.

But as with many great grass roots movements, it eventually faded from view; mainly because of its own success. In the 1980's ; there was a "follow-on" in part, with the large Anti-Nuclear movements in America and Europe. These movements put pressure on the United States government and NATO to work closer with the old Soviet Union and others for treaties and an across-the-board lowering of the staggeringly high and growing number of nuclear weapons (peaking then, incredibly, at over 40,000 warheads world-wide). President Ronald Reagan, perhaps as a direct result of the vast and growing Grass Roots pressure, did eventually work for these goals along with the USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev; and together, they actually discussed the total elimination of fission nuclear weapons (an event destined not to happen, but what was truly amazing to all at the time, was that such a serious discussion did in fact take place). Again, this change can be directly attributed to a strong and vocal grass roots movement happening all over North America and Europe. Another effect of the Anti-Nuclear Movement, was a slowing and eventual moratorium on the building of new fission nuclear power plants across the country, accelerated first by the "Three Mile Island" core melt down in 1979 that sent a shock wave of concern across the country despite the industry and media assurances of it not being "any thing to worry about", and second by "Chernobyl" in 1986 : A very serious disaster that changed the general perception towards fission nuclear greatly in Europe and America, as people realized that the industry and government assurances of "safety" regarding fission nuclear technology were vastly overstated. A third result of the Anti-Nuclear movement were partial Atmospheric Test Ban Treaties that ended most forms of open-air and ocean atomic blasts for test purposes.

In retrospect, we know now that the Chernobyl disaster was much worse than we had heard in the news at the time. It is estimated by several Studies, that over 800,000 people have died so far as an indirect result of being irradiated; mainly from cancers gotten years later from the high levels of ionized radiation put out by the melted-down and exploded Chernobyl reactor. These deaths were not from exposure to the direct rays themselves in the atmosphere, but specifically from consuming food and water affected by fall-out (the main danger in these situations being irradiated rain water affecting crops, animal feeds and grasses, and water supplies). Many crops in different areas of Europe still show clearly detectable radioactivity from that disaster (and likely will for hundreds or thousands of years); and towns as far as 100 kilometers from Chernobyl still cannot be safely occupied to this day" 25 years later. It may be, as in parts of the Fukushima Prefecture of Japan, that these areas will not be safely re-inhabited until a time when the great-great-great grandchildren of the current victims can return.

President Carter was himself a Nuclear Physicist, who worked with fission nuclear power in the U.S. Navy back in the heady "Admiral Rickover" days. Yet he clearly recognized the future importance of solar energy... abundant, clean, and safe energy where the only "fuel" involved comes freely from the Sun. And he backed his concerns about our energy future with real and significant action by creating the Department of Energy. Back then, we all optimistically expected this alternative energy source to grow and become more prevalent, eventually breaking our dangerous dependence on oil (and we also expected major improvements in the efficiency of solar PV panels to materialize and reach market quickly). However things did not work out that way at all. In fact, despite all the promises we have heard over these long years, the United States' energy outlook is now more grim and bleak than in the 1970's... And now to top it off, two consecutive major energy-related major disasters have happened in as many years.

Every four years or so, and "coincidentally" always during presidential election time, we would hear rhetoric about a wondrous future for Alternative Energy (as we certainly did in 2008 as well). Lots of talk, talk, talk. But in those 35 years; very little action has materialized. Some of us can even remember the oil corporations' Public Relations advertisements from over 25 years ago on these subjects; and how these energy giants began investing their profits from oil into "Solar". This was the original genesis for most of the many tax incentives and subsidies given to energy corporations by the U.S. Congress... billions in yearly largess and "corporate welfare". But these billions in tax breaks turned out to be perhaps the "worst investment" ever seen in History. In all those long years of talk, tax breaks, subsidies, and "investment"" what was actually accomplished on the ground by these oil corporations or the government regarding alternative energy? Very little: Within the borders of the United States, there has been embarrassingly little done considering the incredibly huge and growing need for energy this country had, and still has. We have remained the "prisoners" of polluting fossil fuel corporations and the privately owned monopoly electric utility corporations, and to a lesser extent, the fission nuclear industry. Together, these entities have managed to maintain a Status Quo for energy that has stayed in place for decade after decade, with no major or meaningful changes at all... and the only challenges to this paradigm being disturbing disasters such as the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989 (that the liability damages were still being fought in Federal Court by Exxon Mobile's corporate lawyers up until 2009 ; twenty years later while thousands of the victims had already died). Or the more recent "2008 Oil Price Bubble", an economic disaster for many small businesses and the "working poor" that caused many lay-offs, and that was based purely on speculation and energy commodities market manipulation. These "blips" briefly increased public awareness and spurred greater interest in this broad subject of "Energy", a situation that Americans generally take for granted and rarely question... but seem to have very little lasting effect either in the minds' of Americans, nor their elected officials... probably due to all the Billions spent on public relations campaigns by the energy giants (to date, BP has spent more on Public Relations than it has in actual clean up efforts). This strange "forgetfulness" regarding energy topics we can clearly see illustrated today; with the bizarre fact that despite a great deal of professed "outrage" by many members of Congress for the BP Gulf Disaster (back while the mainstream media was still reporting widely on it and the cameras were focused on them)" one year later there has been no legislation at all passed regarding deep water offshore drilling, nor drilling safety in general. In fact, recent cuts in funding and the over-all trend against corporate accountability, suggests that there will be even less regulation and oversight of these drilling operations in the future... virtually insuring another disaster caused by Criminal Negligence, where profits trump safety, will happen again.

If these long-promised changes for Alternative Energy ever come, what would we average Americans gain from it? The answer depends greatly on the "fine print details". We must first understand that real change in the energy sector depends heavily on insisting on a REAL Solar PV Initiative for homeowners and small businesses to install their own solar PV systems. There are many good things to say about large wind farms, or solar thermal centralized projects (and others such as Tide and Geothermal power): They do clearly lower pollution and our dependence on fossil fuels; and "green" centralized projects should certainly be pursued to replace coal as the major fuel for generating electricity. Yet these large-scale projects are usually owned by the same monopoly corporations selling us power now and are really quite inferior to us ALSO installing widespread PV solar in a de-centralized mass approach. A REAL Solar Initiative must provide a path and means for millions of Americans to install solar PV panels on their own roofs... generating their own energy; and sometimes even selling-back excess power to the grid for credit and helping provide energy for industry during Peak hours ("running the meter backwards"). Below are some of the advantages of a de-centralized Solar Initiative:

> A de-centralized Solar Initiative would be by far the fastest route out of the current energy paradigm. It takes up to 10 years to build a new fission nuclear plant... Well within that time, if there were actual and serious incentives and some specific changes to the present solar industry, there could be many more Gigawatts of power already being produced than those now-proposed fission nuclear plants would ever generate when completed (and all the old and dangerous existing fission nuclear plants could be closed down). This is because there is a tremendous potential consumer base to tap here with business and home owners, that is being held back only by the current conditions of the market. Freeing the solar PV market, so it is actually allowed to prosper and the sudden demand this creates, would bring about a hugely strong and undeniable reply to those who claim we "must" now build either new coal-fired, or fission nuclear-heated generating plants. The nation of Germany proves such a Solar Initiative is viable and valuable; and that artificially limiting our "choices" is no more than a false, discredited, and lame debate tactic of the industry shills. Germany already generates over 12 Gigawatts of energy from de-centralized solar PV: more than all the Fukushima reactors combined (and it is "the cloudiest country in continental Europe"). It has done this quietly and with only modest incentives; but their investment has paid off as the German citizens have demanded, and gotten, the closing of several aging fission nuclear reactors; and may soon eliminate the dangers of fission nuclear energy altogether within their borders.

> This means huge and growing mass production of solar panels; that soon kicks-in the benefits from the Economy of Scale. We know for fact, that the "PC Revolution", and the related "PC Memory" industry, proved that items made of relatively cheap materials such as Silicon (that most types of solar panels are also mostly made of), can be produced at costs dozens of times lower when made in much larger quantities. In fact, the only major governing factor for "cost" once the industry spun-up would be the total numbers of units produced. Imagine all the new factories and jobs this will provide our economy. Not only in manufacturing, but installation as well. GOOD JOBS that provide needed taxes to the treasury, and help the economy in general... new jobs for the non-college educated middle class, devastated by the many years of "globalization off-shoring" and plant closings. The jobs generated by a de-centralized Solar Initiative will be several times more than all other schemes for energy currently "on the table" in Congress combined. We could also begin to Export solar panels in large quantities to a world thirsting for cheap and clean energy... instead of continually "exporting" only our manufacturing jobs and sliding towards poverty.

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Is a writer and activist in the field of alternative energy. A partial list of his articles can be seen here (or by Searching OpEd News): He is also the Admin of The Free Energy Facebook Group, all (more...)
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