HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT: We celebrate the 12th anniversary of 9/11 by debating what military action we should take in response to yet another Middle Eastern dictator who has gassed horrifically large numbers of his own people. Two wars — the longest in this nation’s history — and one global economic meltdown later and it’s still the same old song. Saddam, Assad, what’s the difference? The lyrics have changed, but only barely. The line in the sand, this time around, is red. And with the suicide rate of former military men and women hovering at 24 a day, why wouldn’t it be? Maybe some missile therapy is genuinely called for in Syria, if only to make us feel better about not standing idly by. But in the meantime, I’m praying Putin’s ploy — however dubious and cynical — pays off. Maybe we’ll finally figure out what should be obvious.
To the extent the industrial world depends upon oil from the Middle East, we’ll find ourselves perpetually provoked into waging unwinnable wars. The time has come — yet again — to step away from the car. The development of solar and wind technologies should be declared a matter of grave national security, and every sneaky tax break and shameless government subsidy known to the arch druids of pork-barrel politics should be thrown indiscriminately their way. That’s how we do when things really count. When the Soviet Union launched its first rocket ship into space — however embarrassing and primitive — the chill of nuclear vulnerability swept across the United States. In response, the math and science curriculum of every single junior high school student in this country was changed overnight to address that potential threat. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to understand the same thing needs to happen again. Only this time, different.
Into this nonexistent conversation thankfully comes Santa Barbara writer and solar power scholar John Perlin with yet another sweeping tome to whack us all upside our heads. In a case of accidentally perfect timing, Perlin has just released his third book on solar energy, Let It Shine. In person, Perlin can be both impossible and irresistible. But as a writer and thinker, the scope and ambition of his research is a thing of audacious wonder. While his first book on the subject went back a mere 2,500 years, Let It Shine starts 6,000 years ago. The ancient Chinese, he found, discovered something called a gnomon, a measuring stick they planted perpendicularly into the ground to calibrate with great precision the seasonal angle of the sun so that dwellings could be built to maximize solar exposure in the winter — for warmth — and to minimize it in the summer. During the Confucian period, they perfected the development of solar concentrators, and the oldest son was expected to tend to the family fires using a “strap-on solar igniter.” Perlin reports having cooked a casserole dish a few years ago using this technology, achieving sustained temperatures of 550 degrees.
Socrates — when he wasn’t busy corrupting the youth — dispensed detailed instruction on the dos and don’ts of solar architecture, and Roman law made it an offense to block another person’s solar exposure if they used it to heat their home. From there, Perlin marches forth, encompassing the invention of photovoltaics in the 1870s — initially treated as freak-show science — and the transformative development of silicon — still by far the best material for converting sunlight into energy — in Bell Labs in the 1950s.
The point here is that solar energy is nothing new. And it cannot be dismissed as the wishful thinking of the lunatic fringe. If Germany — with 40 percent less sunshine than the United States — can generate fully half its electrical supply via rooftop solar installations, Perlin contends, we have no excuse. The good news is that in the next four years, the United States is expected to install the solar equivalent of 30 to 40 nuclear power plants. The bad news is that’s only 2 percent of our total consumption.
Every story needs a villain, and as usual, presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan fill the bill to perfection. When Reagan took office, his administration received a report ordered by his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, and authored by the Arthur D. Little consulting firm, indicating that solar energy could make a serious contribution if the feds properly funded R&D. The Reagan White House ordered the report destroyed, with no discussion to be allowed. The consultants were warned they would not be paid if word of the report ever leaked out. Carter, a nuclear engineer, only got solar religion late in the day, Perlin said, and only after turning a blind eye to government spending efforts that would have driven the cost significantly down.
In 1973, when Nixon approved $4.5 billion in R&D for the nuclear industry and only $36 million for solar, he cited a National Science Foundation report that allegedly dismissed the contribution solar could make in the nation’s energy future as “nil.” When pressed about this report, the Nixon White House switched gears, saying it didn’t exist. Ultimately, Perlin managed to track down a copy of the report, which predictably said nothing of the kind. In fact, it concluded with proper funding, solar energy could meet 7 percent of the nation’s needs by the year 2000. Nixon’s energy czarina Dixy Lee Ray, bought and paid for by the nuclear industry, saw to it that solar energy — which she’d dismissed as “a flea on the behind of an elephant” — received only the most token federal support. Perlin refers to this cover-up as Nixon’s “Solargate,” and when asked how he managed to find the report when no one else had, he replied, “They ain’t John Perlin, baby.” Indeed, they ain’t.
At the risk of being obvious, those who refuse to learn from this past are doomed to live with their head in the sand, bloody as it’s become. The good news — as Perlin reminds us — if you heat that sand — heads and all — to 2,500 degrees, you get the silicon needed to make photovoltaics. Happy anniversary, uh, I guess.
John Perlin signs copies of his book at Chaucer’s Books, 3321 State Street, on Tuesday, September 17, at 7 p.m.