Forecasts favored solar power over wind power. What happened? | Top stories
Forecasts favored solar power over wind power. What happened?
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Hindsight is a series from the Headway team that revisits the predictions and promises of the past.
Robert C. Seamans, the man President Gerald Ford appointed to deal with the energy crisis of the 1970s, didn’t think wind power had much of a future. In 1975, during the inauguration of an experimental turbine in Ohio, Seamans estimated that the wind would never represent more than 1% of the energy supply of the United States.
Solar power, on the other hand, was one of the Seamans’ great hopes for energy independence. It had been two long years since the OPEC oil embargo, and gas prices were still high. Six months into his term as president, Ford established the Seamans agency—the Energy Research and Development Administration—to galvanize local fuel industries and end dependence on foreign oil.
The same year Seamans poked fun at wind power, his agency released a report claiming that the sun’s “virtually inexhaustible potential supply of energy” could account for a quarter of the country’s energy consumption by 2020.
Nearly 50 years later, wind and solar farms have sprung up across the country – but solar power accounted for less than 3% of US electricity last year, while wind accounted for around 8%. President Biden aims to run the US energy grid entirely on clean energy within 15 years, and he has set a goal to reduce the cost of solar energy by 60% over the next decade. . To achieve these goals, policymakers would do well to explore why Seamans’ predictions were essentially upside down.
How did the wind eclipse the sun?
Jay Hakes, who served as an adviser to President Jimmy Carter and head of the Energy Information Administration at the Department of Energy from 1993 to 2000, has spent a lot of time examining why the rosy forecast for solar power hasn’t pan out. materialized. He concluded that the answer was complicated, but largely concerned inconsistent government support.
New technologies can take decades to bear fruit, so “early research and development is often done by government or not at all,” Hakes said. When Mr. Carter took office in 1977, he created the Department of Energy and doubled its energy independence. Mr. Carter refused to finance large federal purchases of solar panels, saying in 1978 that it was “still too early to focus on the commercialization of photovoltaics”. But he has spent millions researching new solar technologies. In a symbolic show of support, solar panels were mounted on the roof of the White House a year later.
But Mr. Carter’s successor did not endorse those efforts. In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan cut Mr. Carter’s renewable energy research budget by 85%. “The Reagan administration fired most of the scientists working on solar energy,” Hakes said. In 1986, the White House’s solar panels were removed to repair the roof; Reagan decided not to hand them over. Reagan instead chose to subsidize the nuclear industry, shifting funding from alternative energy sources to the nuclear weapons program and streamlining regulations for commercial power plants.
As the United States reduced its support, countries like Germany and Japan forged ahead with solar power. In the 1990s, Germany invested billions in renewable energy research and passed a national law requiring utility companies to purchase renewable energy at a fixed rate, which increased demand.
“The whole world has benefited from his investments in solar cell technology,” said Samantha Gross, director of the Energy Security and Climate Initiative at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, DC-based think tank.
In the late 1990s, Japan also provided large government subsidies for residential solar panels and pioneered the use of semiconductors, a material that helps conduct electricity, to make solar panels. photovoltaic cells, the individual units that make up solar panels.
Which direction is the wind blowing?
As other countries developed solar technology, wind power was slowly gaining momentum in the United States. In 1992, Congress passed a production tax credit to subsidize wind power installations, making them more attractive investments.
“We’ve been using wind power to grind grains forever,” said Nathanael Greene, a senior renewable energy advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council. But using the technology to generate electricity required technological adaptations, he continued, so it took time for the United States to become competitive. Production incentives have helped make wind power much cheaper and more efficient.
In the late 1990s, the Clinton administration heralded a modest upsurge. Highlighting the benefits for rural areas, he authorized federal agencies to spend more on energy from renewable sources. Clinton Energy Secretary Bill Richardson has promised that by 2020, 5% of the nation’s electricity will be supplied by wind power.
In a boon for both technologies, individual states began to adopt policies called renewable energy portfolio standards, which, as Germany had done, required electricity to come from renewable sources. Relatively conservative states like Iowa and Texas “realized they were part of the windbelt” and became early adopters, Hakes said. With this guaranteed demand, wind power installations exploded in the 2000s.
American solar power has also begun to flourish, in part due to efforts abroad to make solar technology better and cheaper. In the 2000s, Chinese solar companies increased production, first to meet German demand and then to build Chinese installations. In 2005, under President George W. Bush, the US Congress passed a tax credit that made it cheaper for individuals to install solar panels on the roof of their homes. President Barack Obama extended these credits and injected $90 billion into renewable energy. In total, over the last decade, the increase in global production has contributed to the fall in solar energy prices by 89%.
Learn with hindsight
What’s in store. The Hindsight series examines past efforts to improve our world to learn how society can best move forward in the face of accelerating dangers. Here are some key examples that can help us chart our way:
Ms Gross is among many experts who predict that solar power will continue to grow rapidly and become more affordable, as will offshore wind power. “The cost of solar power continues to drop rapidly,” she said. The US solar industry grew by 43% in 2020, and the price of wind and solar electricity is now lower than that of coal.
A bumpy road ahead?
Ms Gross warns that for renewables to really thrive, the US also needs a “modernized grid”.
The US electrical grid is split into three separate grids, making it impossible to send solar or wind power from California to, say, Delaware or Alabama. And despite falling renewable energy costs, U.S. energy policies remain fragmented, with no federal renewable portfolio standards that would require a certain amount of electricity to come from renewables.
This uneven policy has had repercussions: Hakes notes that wind and solar “have encountered significant hurdles along the way due to inconsistent policy support”. The United States also lags behind other developed countries, such as those in the European Union, in pricing carbon or making companies pay for the carbon emissions they produce. “If we put a price on carbon,” Ms. Gross said, “you get out of the realm of subsidies, and at least the prices that consumers see are correct.”
The Biden administration’s Build Back Better bill included $320 billion in tax cuts for producers and buyers of wind, solar and nuclear energy. But now that the bill is deadlocked in the Senate, the package hinges on the administration’s efforts to break it. Hakes believes that if federal policies of a similar magnitude had been instituted earlier, solar power prices could have become competitive with gas and coal at least a decade sooner.
“If you give smart people a financial incentive,” he said, “you’re going to see progress.”
Progress is a New York Times initiative exploring global challenges through the lens of progress.
The Headway Initiative is funded by grants from the Ford Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors serving as the fiscal sponsor. The Woodcock Foundation is a funder of the Headway Town Square.
Funders have no control over the selection, direction of stories or the editing process and do not review stories before publication. The Times retains full editorial control of the Headway initiative.
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