The favored projections use solar energy instead of wind power. What happened?

Reconsideration is a series from the Headway team looking back at past predictions and promises.

Robert C. Seamans, whom President Gerald Ford entrusted to deal with the energy crisis of the 1970s, doesn’t think wind energy has much of a future. In 1975, while dedicating an experimental turbine in Ohio, Seamans open that wind will never account for more than 1% of the US energy supply.

Solar energy, on the other hand, is one of the Seamans’ great hopes for energy independence. It’s been two long years since the OPEC embargo on oil, and gas prices are still high. Six months after his presidency, Ford created the Seamans agency – the Energy Research and Development Authority – to stimulate the home-grown fuel industries and end dependence on oil. foreign.

The same year Seamans mocked wind energy, his agency released a report asserting that “virtually endless supply of potential energy“Probably represent a quarter of the nation’s energy use by 2020.

Nearly 50 years later, solar and wind farms have sprung up across the country – but solar power accounted for less than 3% of US electricity production last year, while wind generated about 8 percent. President Biden is aiming to run the US energy grid entirely on clean energy within 15 years, and he has set a goal to cut solar costs by 60% over the next decade. To achieve these goals, policymakers might do well to understand why the Seamans predictions are fundamentally upside down.

Jay Hakes, who served as an adviser to President Jimmy Carter and was head of the Energy Information Administration at the Department of Energy from 1993 to 2000, spent a lot of time test why optimistic forecasts about solar power fail. He concludes that the answer is complex, but a large part of it is about inconsistent government support.

“New technology can take decades to pay off, so ‘initial research and development is often done by governments, or not at all,’” says Mr. Hakes. When Mr. Carter took office in 1977, he created the Department of Energy and doubled down on energy independence. Mr. Carter has refused to fund major federal solar panel purchases, said in 1978 that “it is still too early to focus on the commercialization of photovoltaics”. But he has given millions of dollars to research into new solar technology. In a symbolic show of support, solar panels were mounted on the roof of the White House one year later.

But Mr. Carter’s successor did not endorse these efforts. During the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan slashed Carter’s renewable energy research budget by 85 percent. “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 put them back. Instead, Reagan chose to subsidize the nuclear industry, channel funding from alternative energy sources into the nuclear weapons program, and streamline regulations for commercial power plants.

As the United States stepped back to support, countries like Germany and Japan went ahead with solar. During the 1990s, Germany invested billions of dollars in renewable energy research and adopted national law required utility companies to purchase renewable energy at a fixed rate, which increased demand.

“The whole world benefits from investments in battery technology,” said Samantha Gross, director of climate and energy security initiatives at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think Sun.

In the late 1990s, Japan also provide substantial government subsidies for residential solar panels and it pioneered the use of semiconductors, materials that help conduct electricity, to manufacture photovoltaic cells, the individual units that make up solar panels.

As other countries develop solar technology, wind power is slow growth in the United States. In 1992, Congress passed a production tax credit to subsidize the installation of wind systems, making them more attractive investments.

“We’ve been using wind power to mill grain forever,” says Nathanael Greene, a senior renewables campaigner at the Natural Resources Defense Council. But using technology to produce electricity requires technological adaptation, he continued, so it takes time for the United States to become competitive. Production incentives have helped make wind energy much cheaper and more efficient.

In the late 1990s, the Clinton administration announced a wind push. Highlighting the benefits to rural areas, it allows federal agencies to spend more on energy from renewable sources. Clinton’s Secretary of Energy, Bill Richardson, pledged that by 2020, 5% of the country’s electricity would be powered by wind.

Benefiting both technologies, individual countries begin to enact the so-called renewable portfolio standards, as Germany did, requires some of its electricity to come from renewable sources. Relatively conservative states like Iowa and Texas “recognized they were part of the wind belt” and became early adopters, Mr. Hakes said. With this guaranteed demand, wind installations exploded in the 2000s.

American solar also start to develop, thanks in part to efforts abroad to make solar technology better and cheaper. In recent years, Chinese solar companies have ramped up production, first to meet German demand, and then to build Chinese installations. In 2005, under the presidency of George W. Bush, the United States Congress passed a tax credit that made it cheaper for individuals to install solar panels on their roofs. President Barack Obama extended those credits and injected $90 billion into renewable energy. Overall, over the past decade, increased global production has contributed to a decline in solar prices 89 percent.

Ms. Gross is among many experts predicting that solar will continue to expand rapidly and become more affordable, along with offshore wind. “The cost of solar is still falling rapidly,” she said. The U.S. Solar Industry Grows 43 percent in 2020, and the price for both wind power and solar power now less than coal.

Gross warned that for renewables to really thrive, the United States also needs “a modernized grid.”

The US electricity grid is divided into three separate networks, making it impossible to send solar or wind power from California to Delaware or Alabama. And even though renewable costs are plummeting, U.S. energy policies are still fragmented, with no federal renewable energy portfolio standard, which would require a certain amount of electricity to come from recycled energy.

This unequal policy has had consequences: Mr. Hakes noted that both wind and solar “have experienced significant impacts throughout the process due to inconsistent policy support.” The United States also lags behind other developed countries, like those in the European Union, in pricing carbon or forcing companies to pay for the carbon emissions they generate. “If we set a price on carbon,” Ms. Gross said, “you get out of the subsidy sector, and at least the price that consumers see is right.”

Includes Biden administration’s Build Back Better bill $320 billion in tax relief for wind, solar and nuclear power producers and buyers. But now that the bill has hit a dead end in the Senate, the package revolves around the administration’s efforts to Stop it. Mr. Hakes believes that if similar-sized federal policies were enacted sooner, solar prices could become competitive with gas and coal at least a decade earlier.

“If you give smart people a financial incentive,” he says, “you will see progress.”

Go ahead is an initiative of The New York Times to explore the world’s challenges through the lens of progress.

The Headway Initiative is funded through grants from the Ford Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors as the financial sponsor. The Woodcock Foundation is a sponsor of Headway’s public square.

Sponsors have no control over the selection, focus of stories or the editorial process and do not review stories prior to publication. The Times retains full editorial control over the Headway initiative. The favored projections use solar energy instead of wind power. What happened?

Fry Electronics Team

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