A half hour after the first sunlight slants into the solar collectors on the roof of the University of Chicago’s physics building, the antifreeze pumping through them hits 130 degrees Fahrenheit. The hot fluid sluices through copper pipes that run into a lab and coil down through an enormous tank, where they begin to heat the water for the building. Monitors on the lab bench next to the tank continuously plot the temperature outside and the amount of sunshine falling on the collectors. Gauges on top of the tank measure the temperature of the antifreeze and water as each flows in and out. Last summer Joe O’Gallagher, a senior lecturer and executive officer of the physics department, shut off the building’s boiler so that only the collectors were heating the water for the labs and rest rooms. But the plumbing isn’t well insulated, and the water came out of the taps lukewarm. People complained, and the boiler went back on.
The collectors–four banks of copper pipes, aluminum reflectors, and evacuated glass tubes made by GE–were manufactured in 1981 by Energy Design Corporation. They have been running on the physics-building roof with very few problems since 1987, turning themselves on and off automatically. The design is based on an elegant mathematical principle discovered in the 60s by Roland Winston, now chairman of the physics department, that enables the collectors to concentrate sunlight, increasing their efficiency to about 60 percent: that is, 60 percent of the sun’s energy that falls on them is absorbed by the antifreeze. That’s a lot of heat–each year 2.5 million BTUs of sunlight fall on every unshaded square meter of Chicago.
Winston and O’Gallagher, who have been tinkering with their own collector design for years, now have plans for a reliable new one that’s 70 to 75 percent efficient. They hope someone will want to manufacture it, but Energy Design and GE long ago got out of the business, as did nearly every other company that made solar equipment during the boom years, from the late 70s to the mid-80s. So far no one has been tempted back into a market that’s been comatose since 1986. But O’Gallagher is sure that within a few years changes in the world energy market and growing concern about the global environment will create a huge market for solar, particularly in the developing world. He’s not so sure, however, that American companies will be the ones to capitalize on it.
O’Gallagher is supposed to spend three-quarters of his time as a physics-department administrator and one-quarter doing research. But he nearly always works more than 40 hours a week, and all the extra hours go to solar.
In his narrow research office books, papers, and conference proceedings on solar energy line shelves that cover one wall as high as you can reach. Various magazines on the same subject are neatly stacked inside a bookcase on the opposite wall, under a long blackboard covered with diagrams. A computer sits on a desk next to the hissing radiator. The phone rings frequently, and students often knock and duck their heads around the door.
In 1976 O’Gallagher was teaching and doing cosmic-ray research at the University of Maryland, when Roland Winston invited him to work on practical applications of his solar-concentrating designs. “I must admit I didn’t know much about it,” O’Gallagher says. He speaks quickly, with a boyish enthusiasm. “A few months after I started, I sat down and did these calculations. At first I was mildly disappointed when I found out the cost of a solar collector compared to the value of the energy it would collect. At that time, and even today, energy was very, very cheap.
“But I had always thought that energy was a problem for society, and I had always thought that solar was a good solution. I was enthused about it from the very beginning–everybody I worked with was really committed, from somewhat altruistic motives. It was an exciting time.” The solar industry was just about to enter its second boom.
The first boom happened out west in the first 30 years of this century, when the sun was used to drive pumps, generators, and water heaters. Cheap oil ended that, though some water-heater companies hung on for a while. In the years just before World War II, 80 percent of new homes built in Miami had solar water heaters; then the utilities began subsidizing the cost of gas and electric heaters and offering to install them for free.
It wasn’t until the oil crisis of the early 70s that anyone started thinking seriously again about solar. By then the U.S. was vulnerable–it was importing 36 percent of its oil, the price of which had doubled between 1970 and 1973, and it no longer had the ability to increase its own production. Then in 1973 Egypt and Syria attacked Israel in the Yom Kippur War. The U.S. openly supplied arms to Israel, and the Arabs cut off oil shipments to us. The result was shortages, long lines at gas stations, high prices, and a furious public. But rather than blame their own shortsightedness about energy use, many Americans–including many politicians–preferred to blame oil-company conspiracies.
Richard Nixon responded with Project Independence, which was supposed to enable the country to meet its energy needs “without depending on any foreign energy source” by 1980. Soon after announcing this plan Nixon was forced to resign, but Gerald Ford picked up the theme and proposed building 20 synthetic-fuel, 150 coal-fired, and 200 nuclear-power plants. Solar research also got a nod. In 1975 Winston and Argonne National Laboratory received a $203,000 grant to develop his solar-concentrating technology, which allowed him to invite O’Gallagher to Chicago. That same year Navy Pier was given $300,000, which was to be matched by the city and state, to set up one of the country’s first commercial-scale solar-energy demonstration projects.
Jimmy Carter came into office in 1977 having sworn to lay out a national energy policy within 90 days. “Our decision about energy will test the character of the American people and the ability of the President and the Congress to govern this nation,” he said in a national address. Then, echoing his top energy adviser, James Schlesinger, who was echoing William James, Carter declared that reshaping the country’s energy policy would be the “moral equivalent of war.”
He set up the Department of Energy and poured money into its nuclear and fossil-fuel research-and-development programs. But he also set aside funds for conservation and for solar and other types of renewable energy–much less than for nuclear and fossils, but much more than under the previous administration. Then in 1978 Congress passed legislation granting tax credits for solar purchases to home owners and businesses.
Suddenly the solar industry, which had been slowly building on its own, had a little cachet. Most people were still reluctant to buy experimental technology that cost twice as much as conventional heating systems, but some were willing to leap. In 1974, 137,000 square feet of solar panels were sold; in 1978, five million. In 1979, 1,269 Illinois home owners received $2.2 million in tax credits for installing renewable-energy systems, most of them solar. Illinois isn’t an ideal place for solar–two-thirds of our yearly solar energy falls between June and September, and the total is only half of New Mexico’s. But that’s still a lot of energy.
The growing solar market was essentially for thermal devices–water and space heaters. The market for photovoltaic collectors, which convert sunlight directly to electricity (see sidebar), didn’t really start to build until the thermal market crashed in the mid-80s. A big portion of the nation’s energy budget goes to space and water heating, which now account for almost half the energy used in commercial buildings and nearly three-quarters in residential, according to the DOE. Natural gas generates most of the energy for both kinds of heat; fuel oil and electricity pretty much split the rest. Most electricity is generated by burning coal; oil (740,000 barrels a day), nuclear, and natural gas supply the bulk of the rest. Solar clearly didn’t have the drawbacks of conventional sources–sunlight is abundant, dependable over the long term, and free. O’Gallagher calls it a democratic source of energy. “It’s available to everybody. It has no preferences. It’s very well distributed and decentralized.”
By the end of the decade the solar industry was thriving. In a 1979 speech, Carter declared that renewables should supply 20 percent of the nation’s energy by the year 2000. Big businesses–IBM, RCA, Boeing, the oil companies–were investing. Even ambitious but dubious projects were being seriously considered, among them a $12 billion satellite five by ten kilometers that would beam energy back to earth.
The federal government was also supporting numerous large demonstration projects. Some $40,000 went for solar water heaters on top of the White House. More than $500,000 went toward a huge array of collectors on the Museum of Science and Industry roof, which were to provide 15 to 20 percent of the building’s heating and cooling, using heat-driven air conditioners. The public was also buying more solar technology, emboldened by a 1980 boost in the tax credit to 40 percent on the first $10,000 spent.
But U.S. energy policy continued to be jerked around by foreign politics. Iran’s revolution, which began in 1978, shut down oil production there. According to Daniel Yergin, author of The Prize, that created a worldwide shortage of only 4 to 5 percent, but it was enough to set off nasty competition for the rest. The revolutionaries managed to start the oil flowing again, but then they took their American hostages, and Carter embargoed shipments to the U.S. Gas lines, public outrage, and oil-company conspiracy theories were back. The price of a barrel of oil went from $13 to $45 before settling in at $34, helping to push this country into the worst recession since the Depression.
Carter had to do something, particularly since elections were coming up. In July 1980 he announced the creation of the Solar Bank, which was to encourage through loans and grants a still-skeptical public to invest in solar and conservation; he wanted the bank to open with $450 million. People seemed to be more reassured by his program to produce synthetic fuels, which are made mostly from coal and shale, and which could be used just like petroleum; he declared that synfuels would supply 2.5 million barrels per day by 1990, though he had been warned the $88-billion program would never justify its cost.
Ronald Reagan ran against Carter promising to abolish the Department of Energy, which he called a prime example of federal waste, and to slash the budget for renewable energies. He never managed to get rid of the DOE, but in two terms he did shift the portion of the department’s budget that went to designing, testing, and producing nuclear weapons from 32 percent to 70. And he never eliminated funding for solar R & D–Congress always restored some of what he wanted to cut–but he did shrivel it. Carter had requested $707 million for the 1981 budget; Reagan wanted to shrink that by 70 percent for ’82, and Congress finally appropriated $303 million for that year. The 1988 allotment was $90 million.
Reagan didn’t hide his contempt for solar. “It was just ideological,” says Scott Sklar, executive director of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). “The people that supported it–Jerry Brown, Jimmy Carter–were anathema to Ronald Reagan. He personally disliked them, and therefore we were associated. By definition we were bad.”
Winston discovered his light-concentrating principle in 1965 while trying to find an efficient way to detect electrons only rarely given off when a lambda particle decays. But it wasn’t until the mid-70s that other scientists pointed out to him the potential use of his discovery in solar collectors.
O’Gallagher, who used to teach a “physics for poets” course and has a knack for explaining the arcane, stands at his blackboard and with the hesitant strokes of the nonartist sketches the curved walls of the basic “compound parabolic concentrator” (CPC) collector. Then he draws the small absorber tube that runs through the bottom of the collector trough, and hatches in rays of sunlight to show how they can come from numerous directions and all still hit the absorber tube with at most one bounce off the curving side walls.
The brilliance of Winston’s discovery lies in the mathematics of that parabolic curve, which allows the side walls to concentrate enough light on the absorber tube that the collector can remain stationary. Until Winston published his design no one had believed light could be concentrated without the collector being constantly pointed directly at the sun, and tracking the sun is tricky: a collector can’t be more than two or three degrees off the sun, and the mechanical devices that keep it there are expensive and often cranky.
Concentrating collectors are valuable because the temperatures of the absorber fluid can go far higher–by hundreds of degrees–than in the standard flat-plate collector, which simply absorbs whatever energy falls directly on it. The higher temperatures allow concentrators not only to heat water but also to run pumps and air conditioners (13 percent of the electricity in this country goes to air-conditioning), and at the public-utility scale even create steam to drive turbines. How high the temperature goes depends on the collector’s design, the speed at which the absorbing fluid is pumped through, and the rate at which the heat is pulled out.
Winston patented a range of basic CPC designs, and several patent licensees did their own research on them in the late 70s. By the early 80s five of these companies, among them GE, Energy Design, and Sunmaster, had brought their own designs to market.
The solar market had continued to grow despite Reagan’s opposition. In 1980 home owners spent $399 million on various systems, and in 1981 they spent $678 million–hardly a huge market, but not froth. In 1982 the Illinois Department of Energy and Natural Resources put out a directory for the state that listed 348 solar manufacturers, suppliers, installers, builders, and consultants.
Yet the Reagan administration seemed determined to stop any government advocacy of solar. The country’s four regional solar-energy centers, which distributed information to businesses and the public, had their funding abruptly cut off. What the administration couldn’t cut directly it tried to obstruct. It refused to issue the operating regulations that would have allowed the Solar Bank to open, and impounded the $21.8 million Congress had appropriated for it. Only after several congressmen and consumer groups sued Reagan and five members of his cabinet in 1982 did the bank open.
Reagan also wanted the government out of solar R & D, explaining that the free market ought to determine the future of solar. Yet he was willing to endorse the extravagant synfuels program, which he had condemned before his election, and quite happy to try to rescue the nuclear-power industry, which the free market had nearly killed. In 1982 the budget for nuclear energy was $1.6 billion, $300 million more than the Carter administration had spent in 1981 and far more than would go to any other energy source.
People in the private sector quickly got the message. Joseph Lindmayer, president of Solarex, the country’s largest manufacturer of photovoltaic equipment, complained to a New York Times reporter that a potential $10 million investor in his company had backed out because the government had “decided to go nuclear.” Lindmayer added, “If Reagan wanted to get out of solar, at least he could have done it like Vietnam and called it a victory. Instead he pulled out as if solar was a loser.”
But the Reagan administration couldn’t have ruined the solar market alone. It had plenty of help from the industry itself. The generous tax credits that had encouraged people to buy solar heaters had also encouraged schemers to sell junk and impossible promises. “An awful lot of systems were bought that didn’t work,” says O’Gallagher. “There were disappointments on every level–they cost more than expected, they delivered less, and they didn’t work.” He remembers stories about pipes bursting and antifreeze seeping into attics, about a collector breaking down and then charring a roof.
Ten years ago he confronted a mess of his own. One night the oil in a high-temperature collector on the physics-building roof leaked and reacted with the insulation around it. The oil ignited and flared into a torch two or three stories high, and fire fighters had to break down doors to put it out. Though only the collector itself was seriously damaged, O’Gallagher says, laughing, that his first impulse was to try to cover the whole thing up.
Jim Hartley, who helped found the Illinois Solar Energy Association and now sells photovoltaic collectors through Photocomm in Downers Grove, remembers an operation that pressured people to buy tracking concentrators, many of which soon stopped working and eventually had to be torn down. O’Gallagher still regularly drives by a house with an old tracking system. “I’ve been seeing this thing for years, but I’ve never seen it looking at the sun. It’s always pointing somewhere else, so I know it’s delivering zero energy.” In 1985 a Rosemont firm that sold high-priced heating systems was sued by then-state’s attorney Richard M. Daley to stop it from claiming people could save 30 to 40 percent of their utility bills when the Illinois DOE said they couldn’t save more than 10 percent.
The scams and failures were widely reported, but the SEIA’s Scott Sklar thinks there were far fewer residential failures than the public thought. And of course a lot of people were happy with the collectors they bought, though Sklar says some shouldn’t have been. “The polling data showed a lot of people loved their systems–even when they weren’t working. And they had no idea they weren’t working.” He laughs. “These solar systems, for the most part, had backup heating.”
According to Sklar, the worst failures were the big systems bought by businesses, which seem to have been quieter about their bad investments. The commercial market had always been tough to sell on solar, even with tax credits. The government’s demonstration projects had been intended to prove that solar could perform on a large scale, but many of them were having problems–and because the Reagan administration had slashed funding, it was hard to fix what was wrong.
Engineers at the Museum of Science and Industry discovered early on that their big array of collectors wasn’t efficient enough to be useful on cloudy days. Then, during a particularly bitter winter, the system froze up and a lot of the pipes buckled or burst. The repairs were expensive, as was the routine maintenance no one had counted on, such as scraping and painting the metal stands that held the 450 panels. “It wasn’t all it was prophesied to be,” says John Patronik, the building engineer. GE, which manufactured the tubes, came up with improvements based on Winston’s CPC principles, and the collectors were modified. But then the company got out of the business (it had been refusing to pay royalties on Winston’s patent but finally sent a check). Patronik could see he wouldn’t be able to buy replacements for long, and in 1987 the whole system was scrapped.
In 1981 the state agriculture department installed on its building in Springfield long rows of panels manufactured by Energy Design, which also used Winston’s research. According to Terry Langley, a mechanical engineer hired to troubleshoot the system, the project cost more than $1 million, half federal money and half state. The engineers who designed it had predicted that it would supply 70 percent of the building’s hot water, which it did. But they had also promised 42 percent of the building’s heat and 20 percent of its cooling; the collectors never did much better than 3 to 5 percent of either. Langley thinks the system was overdesigned–too many gizmos. Worse, more than a quarter of its 3,768 glass tubes shattered, but because federal funds had been cut he could never determine exactly why. He replaced the tubes but soon ran into the problem Patronik had–Energy Design left the business. The last time Langley tried to special order the tubes they were $40 each. Three years ago the department shut the system down.
In December 1985 the federal tax credits for residential purchases ended. The House and Senate had both voted to slowly phase them out, but they couldn’t agree on a timetable and so the credits simply expired (the commercial credits were extended). That same year the DOE looked at the $2 billion worth of credits given to businesses and home owners up to that point and estimated that the investment had produced energy worth $39 billion measured by the price of oil.
But tax credits probably couldn’t have propped up the industry much longer anyway. Most solar manufacturers and dealers had started out believing oil prices would rise to $50 a barrel and higher, and in that kind of energy market it was easy to project a solar system paying for itself in a short time. Instead the price had been falling. The recession of the early 80s had cut demand for oil, as had investments by businesses and home owners in conservation–the U.S. was 25 percent more energy-efficient and 32 percent more oil-efficient by the mid-80s than it had been in 1973. Demand was also falling because much of the Western world had shifted to using coal, nuclear, or natural gas wherever possible. Alaskan, Mexican, and North Sea oil was also pouring into the market. And the Saudis, fearful that OPEC might further undercut the world market by overcharging, helped engineer a glut. In 1986 the price of oil collapsed; at midyear it hit $7 a barrel.
That was the last piece of bad luck for the solar industry, which had grown to 267 manufacturers, 6,000 distributors, and 30,000 employees. It imploded. Most of the big companies–Exxon, Grumman, Sunmaster–had seen what was coming and were already out. Lots of smaller companies, both good and bad, went bankrupt. By the end of 1986 only about 30 manufacturers and 600 distributors were left. O’Gallagher watched, dismayed, as the industry disintegrated. “We were just observers of this scene and the players in the game. And as the years went by you’d hear stories that such and such a company was in receivership. And then that the Chinese had bought their equipment.”
In the summer of 1986 the White House solar water heaters, which had worked just fine for seven years, were removed so that the roof could be repaired. They were never put back.
During the early and mid-80s the University of Chicago researchers were getting almost $350,000 a year from the federal government for their work, and at one point they had five different projects going. “We’re one of the few groups that survived,” says O’Gallagher, guessing that only ten other universities now receive money for solar thermal research. “We still have over $100,000 a year in funding.”
In 1985 O’Gallagher and Winston received a three-year grant to work on the CPC collector, and managed to stretch the funds out over six years. The money ran out last summer, but the DOE, through its National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL, formerly the Solar Energy Research Institute), finally renewed the grant in March. From the DOE’s Office of Energy Research they also receive a Basic Energy Science grant to look into new applications for Winston’s various concentrating technologies. “It allows us to do a lot of things that the other contracts don’t quite support and aren’t quite within the scope of,” says O’Gallagher. “That’s an extremely valuable contract because it allows us to pursue our interests and trusts us to pursue those interests in a good way.”
Their third contract, also from NREL, supports their work on superconcentrated light. For a short time two years ago, in a plywood shed on another roof of the physics building, one of their graduate students, David Cooke, concentrated sunlight 84,000 times, producing the most intense light in the solar system. They have already used this light–which in theory could create temperatures as high as on the sun’s surface–to pump a laser, and they might be able to use it to split water, fuse new composite materials, or break down hazardous wastes.
O’Gallagher knows that without the support of this third grant he and Winston wouldn’t be able to carry on their other research, but he’s troubled that the DOE is so intrigued by the project. “The government is very interested in fancy, exotic things,” he says. “And I think it’s fun, it’s interesting, it’s basic research. On the other hand, to me it’s been disappointing because we’ve given up on what we started out to do–which was to find a solution to the energy problem for society in general. Not to find solutions to problems that we don’t yet have. Using solar to pump lasers may be nice–but you know, we’re not using a lot of energy to pump lasers now.”
He’s also dismayed that they had to drop altogether a project using a thin stretched membrane as a concentrator that might eventually have produced electricity on a large scale. “We were making progress, I thought, toward the goal of a low-cost system for dish electric. It’s still a high-tech thing–much more high-tech than hot water. The technical problems are difficult, and the economic problems are really difficult. But there are utility-scale applications, and we need to have cheap systems.”
He believes a lot of researchers had their funding cut just as they were mastering their difficulties. “It seemed to me that the whole Solar Energy Research Institute and the Sandia National Laboratory effort was beginning to make progress. They were beginning to eliminate bad approaches and focus on those that had promise. This was maybe three, five years ago. Then the problems that they had encountered in the first generation and the failures they had came back to haunt them–there were a lot of failures and a lot of promises that hadn’t been delivered on. The people who decided on funding directions were faced with cutbacks, and it’s easier to justify to Congress spending money on some exotic new thing than it is to continue to pursue something that you’ve been pursuing for ten years without success–yet.”
O’Gallagher doesn’t want the CPC collector that makes it to market this time around to be jeopardized by design failures and overly optimistic promises. He has spent a lot of time looking at the economics of solar heaters and says that the collectors of ten years ago were priced too high by two to three times given the value of the energy they produced. Dealers promised that a $3,000 system, the average price then, would pay for itself within 20 years, based on the assumptions that its energy would be competing with expensive oil, that the equipment would be more efficient, and that it would last 20 years. “So on this go-around what we’re trying to say is, it’s important to make sure the system will really work for 20 years. And if you can make a system that will work for 20 years, then you’re justified in using life-cycle costing. But let’s use very conservative economic assumptions. Don’t count on us having inflated oil prices over the next 20 years. Don’t inflate them every year relative to general inflation, which is what they did.
“But then you’ll have to make the collector much cheaper than you thought. And it turns out we’re not there yet.”
Though they’re not that far off. “If we had all the financial support we needed,” says O’Gallagher, “and if we had cooperation from industry, who would help us design tooling and come up with designs that could be manufactured, we could probably have a really nice, efficient collector in two years.”
Their latest design is a much more sophisticated version of the GE collectors on the roof. O’Gallagher thinks the tubes in the new collector, which would concentrate light 1.7 times, could be made from a standard mass-produced fluorescent tube that’s molded into the parabolic shape. The reflector would be a thin film of silver that coats the inside walls; silver, which doesn’t tarnish when it’s in a vacuum, reflects 95 percent of the light that falls on it, while the aluminum of the old panels reflects only 80 percent. The extra layer of flat glass that protected the old tubes would no longer be necessary–every layer between the sun and the absorber tube decreases overall efficiency.
The remaining technical problems are small but critical. For example, the absorber tube would heat up far more than the glass tube and would therefore expand more. A bellows at either end would allow the absorber tube to expand and contract without cracking the glass, but the bellows might cost too much. A U-shaped absorber tube wouldn’t need bellows, but it would make the collector a little less efficient and it wouldn’t allow collectors to be lined up in long rows. O’Gallagher also must make sure the vacuum can hold for 20 years. And he has to design for failures. If the pump broke down, the heat in the collector would stagnate–the absorber tube and fluid could shoot up to 700 or 800 degrees Fahrenheit. The dark coating on the absorber tube that helps it soak up energy has to be able to take that kind of heat, but the most efficient ones on the market can’t. So for now he must settle for a less efficient coating.
There are many things O’Gallagher can’t know for sure until he has a prototype to test, such as how fast a heavy snow would melt off the glass tubes, which would be cool on top. But he has been able to calculate, based on past weather data for various cities, the amount of energy the tubes could realistically collect over 20 years. And he knows that even on the worst days of the year–the two solstices, when the sun is farthest north or south–the collectors would still deliver heat seven hours a day. He would have preferred a collector that could be tilted three or four times a year, to maximize the number of hours it produces heat, “but the whole market seems to be that you don’t want the home owner to have to do anything. You want the collectors to be completely stationary–bolt them in place and let them sit there.”
The tubes, which could be mounted in panels on roofs or built into south-facing walls, would normally operate between 200 and 400 degrees Fahrenheit. That would be enough to supply hot water year-round, provide a significant amount of space heating, or drive an air conditioner. Restaurants, laundromats, and car washes could easily use the collectors; the temperatures are even high enough for industrial uses. According to O’Gallagher, half of all the hot water required for industrial processing–in canneries, textile factories, bottle-washing plants–would be within the normal operating range of the collectors. But he adds that most users would still need a backup energy source, particularly when the sun isn’t out for long periods; the collectors don’t produce heat when the clouds are thick.
O’Gallagher believes he has to get the cost of manufacturing tubes down to around $10 or $15 apiece if the collectors are going to break the resistance Americans now have to buying solar systems. Potential buyers now seem to want a collector to pay for itself within three to five years, and they seem to expect far more reliability than they do from other appliances, such as refrigerators and dishwashers. He figures that if he can get the price down, a collector would pay for itself in seven to ten years, after which all the energy it produced would be free–and he believes the new tubes will last 20 to 30 years.
O’Gallagher clearly thinks cost is important, but he also believes solar advocates are chasing it more than they need to. “It’s an idea that is so ingrained now in everybody working in solar. I certainly succumbed to it, and now I’m consciously trying not to. People don’t buy most things because of the savings–you don’t buy a new car because of the money it’s going to save you. So we don’t necessarily have to say we’re beating conventional sources. We can be 10 or 20 percent more, I think. We don’t have to be 10 or 20 percent less. It’s far better to be 10 or 20 percent more and be really reliable.” He also thinks people might be far more inclined to buy the glittery CPC tubes than the clunky first-generation collectors–and that if the tubes are seen as attractive, they might even have snob appeal.
But he believes the strongest selling point for solar collectors now is the environment. The U.S. is responsible for releasing into the atmosphere more carbon dioxide, the main cause of global warming, than any other country. Electric utilities produce one-third of those emissions. Running a room air conditioner for an hour on electricity produced by a coal-burning plant sends 4 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere; the average electric water heater adds 9,800 pounds a year. Burning natural gas contributes 11 pounds per therm, heating oil 20 pounds per gallon. Fossil-fuel power plants are also responsible for two-thirds of the sulfur dioxide and nearly one-third of the nitrous-oxide emissions in this country; both gases cause acid rain. Manufacturing a solar collector does create pollution, but once it’s installed it runs clean. And without such alternatives, countries with a rapidly growing demand for power–like China, which sits on top of one-third of the world’s coal–will burn what’s available.
Surprisingly, neither O’Gallagher nor Winston has solar collectors on his house. O’Gallagher explains a little sheepishly that he’s been waiting for his own design to come to market.
The solar thermal industry isn’t dead. According to DOE figures, 49 companies made $112 million in 1990, the last year for which there are figures. Across the country an estimated 1.2 million systems, most installed before 1986, are still pumping away. Most of the junk that went up in the early 80s has been torn down, and the Solar Energy Industries Association has set up a national certification program it hopes will keep the crooks out if a third solar boom happens.
On Navy Pier some of the collectors were recently torn down when the sheds were, and the rest will come down this summer. Yet a couple thousand systems may still be running in the Chicago metropolitan area, and a few people are still in the business. Steve Zoubek, who has a degree in solar engineering, hangs on by doing mostly conventional heating and cooling work for Sunwize Climate Control in Wheeling, but he occasionally repairs a solar system. Brandon Leavitt has his own business in the city, Solar Service, mostly fixing systems other companies abandoned. He works alone now, but in 1985 he had 20 employees, ten trucks, and sales of $1 million. Leavitt offers a ten-year guarantee on everything but the glass in his simple flat-plate system, which he designed himself, and has never had to replace a collector or water tank. One of his customers is the Signode Corporation in Glenview, and according to the man in charge of maintenance there, the system Leavitt set up in the early 80s to preheat water for the cafeteria has always run “pretty trouble free” and long ago paid for itself out of the $7 to $8 it saves the company every day. In March Leavitt was putting a new 30-panel array on a laundromat, but sales these days are scarce, even though he says his system will pay for itself in 7 to 12 years. Many utilities around the country don’t have much capacity left and are investing in various solar technologies so that they don’t have to build new plants; Leavitt has been trying to persuade Com Ed, which has excess capacity, to at least buy itself some good PR by putting up some of his collectors. So far he’s had no luck.
George Bush has been more supportive of solar than Reagan was. His first budget raised research-and-development funds by 30 percent, though they still represented only 6 percent of the DOE budget. In 1992 solar will receive $175.5 million, and the 1993 request is for $181.4 million, a 2 percent increase.
When the DOE held public hearings around the country on the National Energy Strategy a couple of years ago, the strongest message it heard was to increase energy efficiency; support for renewables was close behind. Yet the DOE’s final recommendation was that the country continue to rely heavily on fossils and nuclear. Allan Frank, who publishes the biweekly Solar Letter, says the department recommended some good new solar programs, but they were pulled by the Office of Management and Budget. The Senate and House energy bills that were recently voted on also emphasize nuclear and fossils.
Scott Sklar of the SEIA says the federal government doesn’t have many solar visionaries. “They do not exist in Congress–we have a core of supporters, but it’s very small. They do not exist in the executive branch. I frankly don’t see them existing much in the Democratic politicians running for president either. I think there’s a lot of talk and not a lot of willingness to act.”
Certainly no politician has proposed cutting the large federal nuclear and fossil-fuel subsidies, which pay part of, among other things, the costs of military patrols for shipping lanes, cleaning up oil spills, health care related to pollution created by burning fossil fuels, insurance against a major disaster at a nuclear plant, and permanent storage of nuclear wastes. The last time all such subsidies were added up was in 1984, when the total came to at least $39 billion a year. The 1986 tax reform eliminated some tax breaks for these industries, so it’s not clear what the figure is now.
If these costs were not subsidized but showed up on consumers’ bills, so that they knew how much they were really paying for the energy they use, solar might have its third boom. If Luz International, which built almost all of the world’s solar-thermal power plants, hadn’t had to compete with heavily subsidized conventional sources, it might not have gone bankrupt last November. In the 80s Luz built, with the help of relatively small federal and state tax credits, eight plants in southern California that still serve half a million people; the last of those plants was built for only a little more than a coal- or oil-fired one. Luz sales accounted for the biggest portion by far of total 1990 U.S. thermal sales–$82.4 million out of $112 million.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait, solar advocates thought the country would turn to them again. But though oil prices rose quickly, they promptly fell again. The DOE responded by trying to end the ban on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which lies over perhaps 200 days’ worth of oil at the current U.S. consumption rate. If that rate doesn’t change, all the known and estimated reserves in this country will be gone in 20 to 30 years, after which the U.S. will be completely dependent on imported oil–and two-thirds of the world’s known oil reserves are in the Persian Gulf region. Last fall OPEC’s secretary general warned that there may be serious shortages by the end of the decade, yet the price of oil remains lower than in just about every year since 1949 (the lowest price was in 1988).
It’s not exactly a great time to be selling a new solar collector to manufacturers. But that’s what the just-renewed DOE grant is intended to help O’Gallagher do. He and Winston–working through NiOptics, a company set up to commercialize Winston’s research–intend to invite manufacturers to workshops, show them the new CPC design, and ask for solutions to the remaining technical problems. They’ll also ask for suggestions on ways to build the collector as cheaply as possible. “I think we can get some people interested again,” says O’Gallagher. “We hope that they’re still out there and will come back in.”
O’Gallagher trusts he’ll come away with enough ideas to build a few prototypes, which he can then take back to the manufacturers. “It’s one thing to show people all these drawings on paper. It’s another thing to come in with an actual piece of hardware and say, “Look at this. This is what we want to make.’ We have to make it look attractive, practical, reliable, and inexpensive–without looking cheap. You bring something in to them that looks expensive, and they’re going to say it’s not going to work. It can’t look gold-plated.” He laughs. “Though it will be silver-plated.” Any company that decides to build the collector will have to invest in new production equipment, he adds, and it will need a good distribution system and a good network of installers if it’s going to keep the price to consumers down.
Given the ridiculously cheap energy in this country right now, O’Gallagher thinks a manufacturer would be wise to start marketing the collector overseas–the potential demand in such countries as India and China is huge. He says he’s never understood why the federal government, from the 70s on, didn’t push the development of the solar industry by marketing in third-world or European countries, where the cost of energy is far higher than here. “They just said no, right from the start. But if the technologies are proven overseas, and the economics and mass production gets in place, ultimately these technologies will come home, when we really need them. Instead we beat around the bush for ten years and didn’t do anything. Every idea had to stand on its own in this country.”
Ten years ago representatives of Hitachi came to Chicago to look at the CPC research. When they returned to Japan, they started work on their own CPC design, with plenty of backing from their government. Hitachi later dropped the research, and it was picked up by Koto Electric, which has given it about $1 million annually for the last few years. Spain, Portugal, Israel, and Australia are also now funding research on a CPC collector.
Japan, which imports 99 percent of its oil, was hit particularly hard by the 1973 oil crisis, but its government responded with huge investments in efficiency and with high taxes on energy, which kept demand low. By 1985 Japan had cut its overall energy use by a third and its oil use by half–it now uses energy twice as efficiently as the U.S. (which gives it a cost advantage on nearly everything it sells us). According to some estimates, if we were as efficient as the Japanese we’d save at least $150 billion every year.
Beginning in 1974, Japan also invested heavily in a solar research program. It doubled its funding during the 80s, and by the end of the decade was spending more than the U.S. Many countries now give solar strong support, including Germany, which also spends more than the U.S., and Israel, where 60 percent of homes have solar water heaters.
In 1990 the manufacturer of Japan’s most popular solar water heater sold 100,000 units. The company’s sales totaled $200 million, nearly seven times U.S. sales that year if Luz’s power-plant sales are not included. Tokyo, which has nearly the same population as the Chicago metropolitan area, has more than 1.5 million solar water heaters, 300,000 more than in the entire U.S. O’Gallagher remembers being at a solar conference in San Diego in the mid-80s where the American presenters showed slides of houses and office buildings with what he thought were rather nice arrays of collectors. Then the Japanese presenter got up. O’Gallagher says he couldn’t understand a word the man said, but he was stunned by the slides of “football fields” of collectors.
In the middle of the physics-building roof where the most intense sunlight in the solar system once was is a stand of bolted-together two-by-twos holding up a Japanese prototype CPC tube. O’Gallagher and his colleagues are now testing the heavy glass tube, which is four to five inches in diameter and more than ten feet long, for the Japanese. “It’s not how I would have done it,” says O’Gallagher, who thinks its size might make it expensive to manufacture and replace. Yet the Japanese government has apparently decided to abandon research on all other collector designs in the mid-temperature range–that is, up to several hundred degrees Fahrenheit. O’Gallagher laughs and says he and Winston thought that the Japanese choosing their design over all the others was proof it was good.
People who worry that the U.S. economy is slipping might be upset to learn that taxpayer-funded research could be benefiting foreign companies. Asked if he knows that the Japanese prototype is being tested at the U. of C., Sklar says somewhat tersely, “I’m very aware of that.” He points out that the U.S. still leads the world when it comes to developing solar technology, “but it’s a fragile lead, and other countries are putting more into R & D and tax and loan subsidies. So if we don’t seize the moment, we will be importing the very technologies we created. That’s sort of a replay of the VCR syndrome.”
And of the air-pollution-control syndrome–70 percent of the equipment now sold in the U.S. is produced by foreign companies. “Solar innovations are emerging all the time,” Sklar continues. “If we don’t keep up with the learning curve, we are going to be surpassed. Are we going to be building carburetors or fuel injectors? Are we going to be building adding machines or computers? Are we going to be building coal plants or renewable energy? My concern is that the United States is still stuck in old paradigms, in old visions, and we will find ourselves economically second-rate. It’s already happening, and it’s going to happen more if we don’t have some risk takers and some visionaries.”
O’Gallagher agrees with Sklar but adds, “When it’s public money that’s being spent on a particular project, there’s a parochial feeling that the benefits should accrue first to this country. And I think that’s right–provided you don’t say, “Don’t continue to support it because we’ve already lost to another country.’ The solution is not to stick our heads in the sand and forget about it. The solution is to do it better ourselves, and do it faster and sooner.”
He’s not sure that’s going to happen with the CPC tube. “But it’s not too late,” he says. And he points out that even if the Japanese put their tubes into production first and even if they capture the American market, Americans will still benefit from the investment they made in the university’s research. Their energy bills will be lower, they’ll be less dependent on foreign oil, and they’ll be less dependent on conventional fuels that create pollution.
He also believes that the environment is now so threatened that getting pollution-cutting products to market is far more important than who makes them. And he thinks a solar market would build a lot faster if Americans were less proprietary about his kind of research. “Frontier research is international. Physics, chemistry, medicine don’t see national boundaries. People have international conferences and communicate their results to one another, and everybody helps everybody else. At least that’s the spirit and the premise. There are still areas where that doesn’t happen–the French and the Americans on the AIDS virus. But the model is international cooperation. There’s an attempt to have knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and advancement in technical development for the sake of technical development–with the expectation that what new ideas there are will benefit everybody. That’s always been the model, and I think that particularly in renewable-energy technology that has to be the model.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Meredith.