Commentary Magazine


Solar Energy: A False Hope

Solar power is the ideal source of energy for the Me Generation: riskless and cheap. Or so it is claimed. Indeed, at the anti-nuclear rally held in Washington last May, the sun seemed more than a mere energy source: hearing the multitudes singing a solar anthem entitled “Let It Shine,” one felt as though one were in church. A rather different and more primitive sort of church than one was used to, to be sure, but a church all the same, with its rituals and its god. The religious progress of mankind until recently might have been written largely in terms of an increasing understanding of the sun as a natural phenomenon and not a deity. That we appear to be reversing that development is not the least astonishing feature of the New Barbarism.

Barry Commoner has long been a solar advocate —The Poverty of Power1 was largely a eulogy of the sun’s potential—and his new book, The Politics of Energy,2 is already very influential. It makes about as strong and detailed a case for a “solar” economy as can be imagined. Yet it is fatally flawed, not only in its technical argument for solar energy, but in the ideological skeleton that lies just below the technological skin.

Commoner begins with three chapters that are really tangential to his theme; their function is the prophetic one of denouncing the feasts of the Samaritans vehemently enough to convince us that his own very expensive and constraining proposals are an improvement. The chapters take the form of a critique of the present national energy policy, an exercise roughly equivalent to machine-gunning drugged fish in a barrel.3 Having demonstrated once again that we cannot rely indefinitely on nonrenewable resources, he sets up the alternative possibilities of an energy system based on the breeder reactor as against one based entirely on solar energy in its widest sense. Since neither system could be set up immediately, he proposes a “bridging fuel” for each. For the breeder system, this bridge is coal, and for the solar system, natural gas.

Not surprisingly, Commoner rejects the breeder-based system, primarily on the conventional grounds of safety and the risks of proliferation. Having essayed a discussion of these arguments twice before in these pages, I shall not deal with them beyond noting their fallaciousness and referring the reader to my earlier articles.4 To the conventional ideas he adds the objection that a breeder-based economy would require a major expansion of the use of coal, which he concedes to be a serious environmental, occupational, and public-health threat.

The solar scheme rests on four major developments. The first of these is the rapid deployment of solar technology for water and space heating. Commoner believes that this technology has already arrived, is now competitive, and need merely be put to work, normally in conjunction with existing systems. Additionally, there would be a rapid development of photovoltaic technology to allow the conversion of sunlight to electricity through individual installations on houses. This technology Commoner believes to be on the verge of success, requiring only mass purchases by the government in order to become economically competitive with central-station electricity. Next, we would build a new alcohol industry capable of producing some 50 billion gallons of liquid fuel a year, displacing about half of our present gasoline supply. Finally, there would be a vast new methane industry, producing that gas from various feedstocks, and shipping it around the country through a major expansion of the present natural gas network.

Commoner’s analysis of the prospects for water and space heat is as rosy as it is because he compares direct solar heating with electric-resistance heating, i.e., the most expensive kind. He himself concedes this fact, but says that such heating is “very common.” In reality, it accounts for only 13 per cent of all residential heating installations. One is tempted to suspect that electronic-resistance heating was chosen not because of its bogus commonness but because of its genuine expensiveness.

Commoner admits that direct solar energy will never be practical as a total source of heating. But in discussing the economics of a system that integrates solar with existing sources, he appears to take no account whatever of the effect that the subtraction of the baseload would have on the economics of central electricity supply; that is, it would skim off the cream of the utilities’ business—namely, the production of the cheapest part of the total demand—and leave them with the expensive peaks.

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The most attractive promise of direct solar energy is the conversion of sunlight to electricity through photovoltaic cells. The obvious immediate problem in this technology, Commoner notes, is its cost. Currently a cell capable of generating a peak watt of electricity costs in the neighborhood of $10.5 To provide electricity for a color television set at high noon in the middle of June would require $1,000 for the cells. The mounting would be extra. So would be additional cells to produce peak output under less than peak conditions and storage devices to allow operation of the set at night. A typical house with a maximum demand of 15 kilowatts would require $150,000 just for the cells. Commoner does not estimate the cost of mounting or of storage, but installation would run at least $2,000, and suitable batteries would cost $5,000 for the typical house, and need to be replaced every five years or so.

Commoner himself estimates the capital cost of all-solar power generation at nearly $160,000 for a house that would incur a capital cost of a mere $7,500 to $15,000 for the central-power generation. (He does not note that in the case of the central plant, the capital is scraped together by the utility and amortized to the customer through his bill, in contrast to the direct solar system which would presumably be financed by the customer himself.) He then proposes a glittering scheme to bring these costs down to more reasonable levels. He recounts the tale of a Federal Energy Agency proposal to require the Department of Defense to purchase, over five years, a total of $440 million worth of solar cells to replace some of the military’s small generators. By the end of the five years, according to the FEA study, the cost of photovoltaic cells would have plunged to fifty cents a watt. This, with auxiliaries, would bring the total capital investment for a 15-kilowatt house to over $20,000, still more than central-generating plants, and still supplied by the consumer.

One would be more impressed by this scenario if one knew that the manufacturers who estimated the costs had taken firm orders at their estimates. But Commoner suggests that the estimates are conservative because they exclude the additional civilian uses that would be facilitated by earlier price drops. For example, he says, when the cells cost $1 a peak watt, they would be economical for street lights:

Such a unit, mounting a 1,000-watt lamp, might include a vertical panel of photovoltaic cells, about 3 feet by 30 feet, facing south. During the day electricity generated by the cells would charge a storage battery housed in the base of the unit; at night the stored power would be fed into the lamp. There is a potential market for about 60 million to 90 million of such lighting units.

Before proceeding to a discussion of the general prospects of photovoltaic generation for residence use, it is worth analyzing the Commoner Patent Streetlight (CPS) for the illumination it sheds on its deviser’s technical capabilities and the kind of nonsence that now apparently escapes the sleepless fact-checkers at the New Yorker, where his book was serialized, not to say the editors at the distinguished publishing house which brought out the book.6

To begin with, the proposed collector area, approximately 90 square feet, is grossly inadequate. When one figures in additional factors ignored by Commoner—solar radiation less than the maximum, the varying day/night balance, and the inefficient vertical orientation of the collector—it turns out that the true area needed is about 1,000 square feet. At a width of 3 feet this would require a collector about 300 feet high! Even at a collector width of six feet, the CPS light pole would be 15 stories high. Such a device would certainly need substantial guy wires, which would presumably be anchored in front lawns and in the streets, or, as seems likely, in the basements of houses via living-room floors.

Moreover, no trees could be allowed to cast shade on the collectors; nor could tall buildings, which would limit the use of such units in urban areas. Depending on the orientation of the street, the collectors themselves would sometimes cast shadows upon one another, requiring that streetlights be spaced further apart than customary. Although some people have quaintly argued that solar energy is very flexible, this wider spacing cannot be compensated for by increasing the size of the bulb; that would set up a merciless escalating cycle of bulb size, collector size, and spacing.

The visual quality of the CPS, whatever its economic problems, is hideous, a bizarre and exacerbated regression to the days when utility poles carrying hundreds of lines blotted out the urban skyscape.

Then there are the economics of the CPS. The collector would require cells costing, on Commoner’s own price figures, about $7,500. Adequate storage batteries would cost a minimum of another $6,000—every five years—and occupy a great deal of space on the sidewalk. Erecting the pole itself would cost at least $12,500. Thus the total would be about $26,000 to produce a constant kilowatt. On any reasonable assumptions about interest charges, inflation, and the price of electricity, the CPS could never recover its capital cost before needing to be replaced. Storage costs alone would yearly exceed the value of electricity saved. The maximum “market” suggested by Commoner is 90 million streetlights. At $26,000 a shot, that is over $2 trillion.

In short, the CPS is a piece of folly from beginning to end. It is not merely that the nuts and bolts do not fit when looked at closely; the CPS is conceptually lunatic, for it matches a demand at its highest—during the long winter nights—to a supply at its lowest—during the short cloudy days. There is thus a certain irony in Commoner’s repeated assertion that solar energy allows us to attain an elegant fit between demand and supply. It is hard to take seriously an inventor who fails simultaneously with numbers and imagination.

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But if the CPS is a folly, there is no doubt that under certain conditions one is now able, or will be able in the future, to provide a proportion of residential energy through solar collectors mounted on the roof. It is therefore worthwhile to consider the problems raised by this sort of solar energy even if it were economically plausible: the problems, as it were, of solar success.

Some of these are in the broad sense technical: they deal with measurable effects that are relevant to other forms of energy. For example, contrary to popular belief, direct solar power generates waste, not in the production of power, but in the production of its materials. Thus, as Petr Beckmann has noted, the production of the steel and glass and aluminum in solar plants uses substantial amounts of energy, almost all of it derived from fossil fuels, and all of it generating wastes, some of them radioactive. Moreover, the industrial processes involved here would generate their own wastes. Commoner, along with many other direct-solar enthusiasts, decries large central solar plants; if 1000 megawatts were to be generated by many small residential units, the waste, Beckmann points out, would be even greater.

Solar power also raises serious problems of efficiency. Photovoltaic generators are, from the point of view of capital investment, much the least efficient means to generate electricity. They are not available after sundown, and so have an “availability factor”—the proportion of time a generator can work—much lower than any thermal plant. Moreover, the weather and the time of day insure that a solar generator, even in daytime, almost always produces much less than its rated capacity. Its “capacity factor” is, accordingly, very much lower than that of a thermal power plant. Even in sun-drenched areas, the capacity factor will be about 20 per cent, about a third of that for the average large nuclear or fossil plant. If we were to analyze such a solar generator in the terms customarily applied to plants of the latter kind, we would discover a massive capital investment lying unutilized or half-utilized much of the time. We would have to conclude that underutilization is inherent in the technology, never to be improved by technological breakthrough short of a photovoltaic device generating electricity in darkness, a breakthrough literally impossible.

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But the technical problems of solar energy are substantially less interesting than its social ones. Lying just below the surface in most discussions of alternative energy are proposals for reshaping how we live by controlling the type and amount of energy available to us, as well as the way it is supplied to us. These are especially notable with direct solar energy.

There are serious constraints implicit in decentralized direct solar energy. One of these affects architecture: at minimum, each house would have to be oriented with its major roof area facing south. It would not matter what is dictated by the lay of the land, because these considerations would be subordinated to the simple problem of getting energy. And so, ultimately, with construction on neighboring lots: the sun comes into North America at a fairly low angle, and if the right of one householder to an all-solar home were to be preserved, his neighbors to the south would not be able to build very high next to him, and indeed their access to trees might be sharply limited whether they wished to go solar or not.

Photovoltaic is far more constraining than water and space heating not only because it requires more roof area, but because no part of a photovoltaic collector’s area should fall into the shade during any part of the day.7 Thus, in a photovoltaic economy, trees shading houses would be only a remembered luxury.

Nor would such constraints, which would fall on householders unequally as a function of their taste in architecture, be the only ones. Solar collectors need to be kept clean. In the southwest, this might mean no more than sweeping the dust off several times a year. In the northeast, it might mean shoveling snow off the collector six times a winter—no mean task, and a likely cause of increases in death by heart attack and falling.

In short, proposals for a major conversion to direct solar energy are at best proposals to reverse thousands of years of development by which man, through the division of labor, has made the acquisition of energy increasingly the province of fewer and fewer increasingly well-paid specialists. This is what the Commoners are decrying when they call for the decentralization of energy sources. A century ago, the American used substantially less energy than he does now, but provided much more of it through his own efforts. Now that anyone can have access to as much energy as he can pay for by pushing the right button, it was probably predictable that surfeited intellectuals would want to play at chopping wood and shoveling snow off their solar collectors. Yet it is typical of the great majority of the modern pastoralists that they seem to want to get back to nature in the most complicated and expensive way possible. Few if any mean to retire to the equivalent of an 18th-century farmstead. Rather, one is to live with the assistance of extremely costly gadgetry that will provide all the complexities of modern civilization, but with the inefficiency of time and resource that is the hallmark of the “natural” way. Unfortunately, only the few will be able to afford such “handmade” energy; the rest, one supposes, will just have to emulate 18th-century farmers.

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The difficulty with direct use of the sun is that it is very expensive and requires us to adjust our way of life to fit an inferior energy source. But much of Commoner’s book is concerned with indirect methods of converting solar energy—that is, with processes that store solar energy on an interim basis in devices as various as the winds, the tides, the rains, and vegetation, then “harvest” the energy thus stored by an equally various set of technologies. Such methods are hardly new—we have been burning wood for a very long time, and whether learning to call it “biomass” represents real progress one cannot say—but they have the advantage of being somewhat more adaptable to our present energy use than direct conversion of sunlight. Even so, on the scale proposed by Commoner they would require very great dislocations of the economy.

Of these, “gasohol” epitomizes alternative energy sources: even when practical in small doses (often only with substantial tax subsidies), they cannot be scaled up to provide a major source of energy. There is no reason why a farmer cannot use spoiled grain as a stock from which to distill alcohol. Mixed with gasoline, it may well be a competitive fuel—but only if sold at the bogus price that would result if the state decided to forgive the fuel tax on it.

It is often pointed out in support of gasohol that all gasoline in Brazil contains 10 per-cent alcohol, a fraction scheduled to rise to 20 per cent by next year. This policy is often cited as one for the United States to emulate. The easy answer is that we cannot emulate Brazil’s low population density (half of this country’s, which is itself among the lowest in the developed world), or Brazil’s negative balance of trade in food. In the United States, gasohol competes with food for land, a fact that would be reflected in bread and meat prices just as soon as gasohol became popular enough.

The most serious problem with gasohol has traditionally been believed to be its negative energy balance. That is, the total energy needed to produce a gallon of alcohol is greater than the energy contained in it. Commoner has an answer to this. He proposes a major rearrangement of agriculture which he has devised in company with four colleagues at Washington University’s Center for the Biology of Natural Systems:

A recent investigation . . . has produced what looks like a conjurer’s trick: the same acreage that yields grain and hay with a total energy content of 7 quads per year, which is now totally converted into livestock, can instead be made to produce the same amount of livestock plus 8 quads of solar fuel. . . . [T]he present acreage . . . expanded by 15 per cent to include idle land, would be used to plant a rotation of corn, sugar beets, and hay. Most of the corn would be fermented to provide alcohol, and the residue fed to the livestock, together with some hay. . . . This arrangement would yield 5 quads of alcohol . . . the livestock manure and part of the hay would be used to produce methane, yielding about 3 quads. . . .

This scheme has more than the appearance of a conjurer’s trick, for it begins by coolly equating “the same acreage” with the same acreage plus 15 per cent. Nor is this the only difficulty. Commoner is superficially persuasive in demonstrating that there is enough land to produce the energy yields he cites by the methods he uses. Although he does not offer any evidence for his estimate that the total capital investment would be on the order of $70 billion, he demonstrates, again fairly persuasively, that the ethanol and methane produced would displace imported oil and gas with a value adequate to pay off that investment fairly quickly. He also adduces evidence that gasohol is an adequate automobile fuel.

But his evidence that alcohol represents a net energy gain is far from persuasive. It may well be that previous studies, by using data from beverage alcohol distillation, have overestimated the energy needed to produce fuel-grade alcohol. It may also be that the industry can produce more efficient stills. But a large part of Commoner’s energy gain is achieved by something for which “conjurer’s trick” is a polite term. A gallon of ethanol contains about 80,000 BTU’s. Commoner, however, credits it with a much higher figure, derived from the amount of gasoline it would displace were it burned in pure form in a special high-compression engine designed for the purpose. (Commoner seems unaware that the conversion of an existing engine to a higher compression ratio is major surgery costing hundreds of dollars.) Commoner cites a number of studies as to the virtues of 10/90 gasohol as fuel, but none whatever as to pure alcohol. Moreover, although we know that one can run a specially designed auto engine on ethanol, there is no long-term evidence as to the reliability and emissions of such engines.

A full 30 per cent of the energy “gain” Commoner attributes to alcohol is derived through this sleight-of-hand. Without it, the proportion of the energy content of ethanol that is used to produce it ranges, on Commoner’s own optimistic assumptions, between 46 per cent and 57 per cent. Even on Commoner’s ingenious figures, the loss is between 32 per cent and 43 per cent. This should be compared with the figure for gasoline: well under 1 per cent.

These are the operating costs of producing ethanol. As for the capital costs—the costs of producing equipment for the ethanol distilleries and the methane digesters—Commoner simply ignores them. His examples of the fledgling alcohol industry are often based on the use of surplus machinery: one of his distillers adapted a tank from a closed gas station. He also appears to believe that closed gas stations will be a significant source of pot stills: he notes that “since Texaco is selling its dealerships, numerous underground tanks in this size range are presently available.” Even if Commoner were correct in his bizarre assumption that every station sold off by an oil company ceases to operate, cast-off materials could supply only a fraction of the machinery needed for his purpose.

Moreover, his scheme—like most grand solar schemes—requires the premature replacement of a substantial proportion of American refining capacity. One cannot do this sort of thing and get away scot-free: someone is going to pay for it, and it is likely to be the taxpayers.

Commoner also ignores the problem of distribution networks, which would have to be relocated and expanded to accommodate a decentralized alcohol industry. And even if the alcohol production envisioned in the proposal were carried on at fewer centralized distilleries, it would be necessary to move the raw materials from farm to distillery by a new and expanded transportation system based on trucks which use oil.

It is clear that the scheme omits major categories of fiscal and energy expenditure necessary to make it work. But the variable most spectacularly missing from Commoner’s calculation is just the one we might expect him to be careful about: people. For there is no calculation of the labor needed to operate Commoner’s solar proposals.

First of all, the rotation of crops needed to produce the feedstocks would obviously require farmers to work a substantially longer part of the year. And all those alcohol distilleries and methane digesters would not be self-operating. Farmers busy growing extra crops would have little spare time to be factory workers. (The pilot projects mentioned by Commoner typically involve 10 per cent of the production his proposal would exact from the average farm.) There would no doubt be unemployed refinery workers who might be persuaded to move to the farm and retrain as distillers. But Commoner’s proposal remains, in employment terms, a chancy one that depends on reversing this century’s trends in farm employment.8

The proposal is not made sounder by Commoner’s use of the term “competitive.” He and his associates claim that various tax subsidies (actual state and prospective federal) make gasohol competitive with this or that grade of gasoline. Gasohol could of course by made free by a federal tax credit equaling the price paid for it. Commoner’s writings suggest strongly that despite his own frequent admonitions to the contrary, he is among those who think there ought to be a free lunch: on his principle, any device, no matter how inefficient, no matter how noncompetitive, could be made competitive merely by a government decision to yield up part of the tribute normally exacted for its use.

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The other half of Commoner’s fossil-fuel replacement program is methane, which is to be generated in immense quantities—20 quads, approximately the current production of natural gas—by a wide variety of feedstocks and piped through the land in an expanded version of the present-day natural-gas distribution system.

Commoner proposes to exploit methane largely through the use of a device called the cogenerator. This buzzword describes a good idea done to death. Cogeneration is a process that is made practical by a simple fact about heat engines. They must always waste as heat a large proportion—typically between 60 and 70 per cent—of the energy potential in their fuel. This is why cars have radiators. A cogenerator is a device that uses the inevitable waste heat from an engine for some other purpose. Typically, industrial cogenerators use the waste heat for chemical and physical processes; residential cogenerators use it for heating houses (“district heating”). This latter arrangement is found in Europe and is especially widespread in Sweden.

Commoner suggests that cogeneration be brought down to the level of the individual house, and cites a small cogenerator devised by FIAT, based on its standard four-cylinder automobile engine, that would cost $6,000 and, while running on methane, generate 15 kilowatts of electricity for an average home, while providing it with an unspecified proportion of its heat, assuming that it were already equipped with suitable hot-water radiators.

This device would no doubt be useful in the colder parts of the undeveloped world, where a noisy source of electricity and heat, subject to fairly frequent down times for scheduled major maintenance and unscheduled repair, would certainly be better than no electricity or no heat at all. But it must be understood that for us, the future Commoner holds out is one in which our heat and electricity supply would be no more reliable than our car engines.

Commoner proposes that the production of methane from solar sources be gradually increased and mixed in the pipelines with natural gas from wells. He also suggests that certain industries, like canneries, could be net producers of methane at some times in the year (the height of the canning season) and net consumers the rest. And he says that hydrogen produced by solar means, as from photovoltaic electricity, could be mixed with the methane in substantial quantities and shipped through the same pipeline.

The most obvious operating difficulty of this scheme is the need for careful separation of the hydrogen from the methane at the distributing end of the pipeline, and for constant adjustment of burners to deal with the fluctuating methane/natural gas mix, a problem that would continue until—by Commoner’s schedule—well into the next century, when the production of natural gas would finally be phased out.

But these are trivial problems compared to the capital costs implicit in building a massive new energy industry to replace existing natural gas wells. Of any calculation of these costs Commoner’s book is innocent. And these costs, by the way, would come on top of those implicit in another Commoner requirement, the near doubling of present-day natural gas production. By Commoner’s own calculations, existing supplies of “conventional”—a euphemism for “easily and cheaply exploited”—natural gas will not be adequate to see us through the solar transition. We must, accordingly, turn to “unconventional”—a complementary euphemism for “hard-to-get and expensive”—sources of natural gas. And we must expect that the gas industry would be willing to gear up to produce unconventional natural gas on the clear understanding that just as soon as we could produce enough methane to replace it, bang! would go the market.

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One suspects that Commoner does not really think capitalists are as dumb as all that, but hopes that the taxpayers will be. He ends his book by surveying the political problems inhering in the grand transition. One could summarize his argument by saying that solar energy will be good for the Peepul and less good for the bosses, except those who run energy-intensive businesses. The argument takes leave of technology and shows quite clearly the trend and quality of Commoner’s ideology.

He begins with one of those breathtaking examples of naiveté and self-contradiction that freight his work. We have been told (he tells us) that we are running out of oil and natural gas. No such thing, he says, for Mexico’s newly discovered reserves exceed those of Saudi Arabia and we have immense amounts of “unconventional” natural gas.

Well, let us assume that the natural gas could be recovered at economic rates. Oil, whatever its source, is just the sort of fuel that Commoner has told us we can no longer afford. There is no reason why Mexico should sell oil to the United States except at the world price and no prospect that it will. To propose that we rely on Mexican oil is to propose something Commoner elsewhere treats as intolerable, and, back in the real world, to guarantee an exacerbation of the sort of problems we now have with OPEC. If Mexican oil is more useful to us than Saudi oil, it can only be on assumptions that are sometimes called “imperialist.”

Commoner’s main concern is how to dispose of the present energy-supply companies once we have erected their replacements. For the electric companies the solution is simple: competition from photovoltaic electricity would drive them into the ground financially, and we would nationalize them in order to pick up the still useful distribution systems they control. There is no estimate of the total cost—to taxpayers and shareholders—who together would have to pay it.

The oil companies, for unspecified reasons, he is unwilling to nationalize. They would be offered the opportunity to become public utilities like the natural-gas pipeline people. As for the coal companies, they would suffer the cruellest fate of all, for Commoner simply ignores them. Presumably they would be bankrupted without even the benefits of nationalization. And their workers? Let them distill alcohol in Iowa.

Most of the problems inherent in the grand transition Commoner would solve by something called “social governance.” It is not clear what this is a euphemism for, although Commoner does reassure us that, having survived Joe McCarthy and Watergate, we can probably survive it too. There is nothing vague, however, about another key phrase. In his last sentence Commoner calls for us to adopt as a major national goal something he terms “economic democracy.” Although he does not define this term here, he did so in his earlier book, The Poverty of Power, where “economic democracy” is explicitly and quaintly defined as the economic system of such states as China, Cuba, and the USSR—places, as is well known, in which all economic decisions are made by individuals and popularly elected assemblies.

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Commoner has recently been active in the formation of a new political organization, the Citizens’ Party, and it is as a political manifesto that The Politics of Energy makes the most sense, just as Commoner himself makes sense best not as a scientist but as an ideologue. Indeed, the whole solar movement is interesting primarily as an ideological one. Its technical slovenliness cries out to be exposed, but there is nothing new in such slovenliness on the part of enthusiasts. What is comparatively new in a democratic society is the use of technological arguments, however incompetently made, to support a call for a new vision of human life.

The energy crusade as preached by a Commoner and followed by many thousands of nostalgic activists is little more than a continuation of the political wars of a decade ago by other means. Having despaired of convincing Americans that their society is the most oppressive and brutal in the world, they now tell Americans that it is the most dangerous in the world. Where salvation was once to be gotten from the Revolution, now it will come from everyone’s best friend, that great and simplistic cure of all energy ills, the sun. Where it was once fashionable to argue that we had to smash the state before we could decide what to erect in its place, now the Commoners feel obliged to sketch out a rosy “scientific” account of what will ensue after the destruction of the older order. This progression is not really progress: in reality the very machinery of the state is being skillfully utilized to destroy the existing energy order long before its replacement can be prepared.

Of the late 5th-century Romans, it could at least be said that whatever their other faults, they did not mean to be followed by the Dark Ages.


Footnotes

1 Knopf, 1975.

2 Knopf, 101 pp., $4.95 (paper).

3 Even given this undemanding challenge, Commoner can be foolish, as when he notes that “it costs a great deal more to build a nuclear power plant than to drill an oil well with comparable yield.” This is gibberish as it stands, for an oil well has no usable energy without a conversion device such as a generating plant. Nuclear plants cost more than fossil types, but burn a cheaper fuel, with the result that nuclear electricity is everywhere cheaper than oil-fired electricity. This plain fact is lost on Commoner, who believes that increasing the energy yield per dollar invested would “mean favoring oil wells over nuclear power plants.” He ends by telling us that “policy can change the national energy system, but only in harmony with certain objective physical and economic facts.” Indeed.

4 “The War Against the Atom,” September 1977; “The Harrisburg Syndrome,” June 1979.

5 A peak watt is a watt generated under the most favorable circumstances: at high noon in midsummer on a clear day with the array oriented due south and tilted at the optimum angle to the sun. If any of these conditions is less than perfect—if it is cloudy, or winter, or dusky, or if the array is mounted unsatisfactorily—a given cell will generate very much less than its peak capacity. Of these conditions, only the orientation can be maintained at optimum; on all other counts, conditions are usually well under the optimum.

6 It is important to realize the rudimentary nature of most solar projection, and how much is omitted from cost calculations, and sometimes left to chance and later development. The primitivism is usually technical: few solar writers discuss the fact that solar cells produce direct rather than alternating current, a circumstance that either adds the expense of an inverter system to the cost of a residential installation or would require us to replace a substantial proportion of our appliances with new ones designed to run on direct current.

7 A portion of the cells in every array is wired in series, and if some members of the series are deprived of light, their internal resistance will rise sharply and they will constitute a serious drain on the efficiency of the rest.

8 There is substantial historical evidence that labor migrations of the sort proposed by Commoner, e.g., the clearing of the Scottish Highlands, are most likely to be accomplished at the end of a rifle.

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