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Book Review : Plugging In to Solar Power to Light the World's Future

May 13, 1986|LEE DEMBART

Suncell: Energy, Economy & Photovoltaics by Christopher C. Swan (Sierra Club Books: $17.95)

The easing of the energy crisis has removed the sense of urgency from the question of what to do when the world's fossil fuels run out. Without gas lines and rising oil prices, people and politicians are not much inclined to think about how electricity is generated and distributed or to embrace radical new schemes for doing it. When you flip the switch, the light comes on, which is more than you can say about most other things in life. So why tamper with a good thing?

The trouble with exhaustible fuels is that they will some day be exhausted. And the recent accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant underscores once again how dangerous nuclear power is. However, as things now stand, the industrialized world has no choice. It is addicted to electricity, and we cannot imagine a world without it. Barely a hundred years has passed since the world began electrifying, but in that time, virtually everything has changed.

Where will electricity come from? Christopher C. Swan has written a highly readable and compelling book that argues that the future lies in photovoltaics--the direct generation of electricity from sunlight. Swan's book tells you everything about solar power, but it is as much a manifesto as a source of information. The arguments are not new, although they have not been heard in a few years. He portrays solar power as politically desirable, environmentally clean, inexhaustible and simple. Unfortunately, he concedes that it is more expensive than electricity generated conventionally by the local utility.

Technology Available

The technology of photovoltaics is available today. If the roof of an average-size home were covered with solar panels, they would generate enough electricity to run the house and sell electricity back to the utility. But such a roof would cost between $30,000 and $60,000, Swan says, and at that price, it doesn't pay.

So far, solar cells have been used either where the amount of electricity required is tiny--as in pocket calculators--or where the use itself makes it impractical to provide a conventional energy course--as in spacecraft, for which no extension cord will be long enough. In addition, solar electricity has found a niche in some rural dwellings, where the cost of stringing electric lines is prohibitive. This gives rise to the notion that electrifying the Third World may more easily be accomplished by solar cells than by large generating stations and extensive distribution grids.

Rooftop Power Plants

Swan describes with approval the major structural, institutional and societal changes that widespread use of photovoltaic cells would bring about. The notion of big, centralized power plants would give way to decentralized, rooftop power plants. This change would bring about a concomitant change in political attitudes, Swan says. He argues that making electricity at home is "highly compatible with the American values of self-reliance and liberty."

"The development of photovoltaics, and a wide range of renewable technologies," Swan says, "need not be an exercise in technological centralization and further specialization, but rather a transition to decentralized, accessible, and inherently more democratic means of utilizing the energy income we already receive."

Yes, photovoltaics is a wonderful thing, if only it was cheaper. No problem, Swan says. It is going to be cheaper. But while his statements about the current state of photovoltaics are well documented, his predictions about the future of this technology are no more than assertions. And he seems to think that if you repeat assertions often enough, they come true by virtue of repetition.

"If one word characterizes current photovoltaic research, it is portentous, " Swan writes at one point. "The combination of intrinsically simple production methods and commonplace materials suggests that electricity generating is about to become simpler than ever before."

'Exploding Growth'

Elsewhere he asserts: "All the technology required to modify an existing home (to be 100% solar) is either on the market now, in research projects now under way, or likely to be available within five to ten years." And again: "The photovoltaic industry is now displaying all the signs that it is about to enter a period of exploding growth, innovation and wealth." And again: "It is highly likely that PV (photovoltaic) electricity will be competitive with all other sources within five to eight years." Excuse me, but haven't we heard these promises before?

To be sure, the government has acted foolishly in eliminating the income tax credit for solar installations that was available until the end of last year. The research and development of new technologies that promise major social advantages should be publicly subsidized, just as the development of nuclear power has received billions of dollars of public subsidy since the end or World War II. If solar energy had received the same kind of support, perhaps it would already be competitive with traditional forms of power.

Swan's book should revive flagging interest in photovoltaics, and it may make some readers want to rush out and install solar panels on their roofs, even without the tax credit. He paints an appealing scenario that envisions a constant and reliable source of electricity tied to a socially agreeable means of producing it. It may even be accurate.

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