A group of environmental activists set out last week on a publicized road tour from Maine’s Unity College to Washington, D.C., hauling a nearly forgotten historic relic – a solar panel – to dramatize the importance of alternative energy. The question, in today’s political climate, is whether it will remain a relic.
Unity students and staff, led by environmental author Bill McKibben, are toting one of the solar panels installed on the White House in the late 1970s at the direction of then President Jimmy Carter. The panels were removed by Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, in the 1980s, and later used by Unity to heat water in the college cafeteria.
The solar panels were Carter’s way of demonstrating his administration’s commitment to increased use of renewable energy at a time of sudden petroleum shortages and soaring gas prices. Solar power in the 1970s offered the kind of bright promise that wind energy does today.
Carter had the misfortune to be president when the world petroleum market burst out of its comfortable, predictable patterns.
Oil prices, which had remained below $2 a barrel throughout the 1960s, suddenly shot up in 1973 to over $11 as a result of the Arab oil embargo, causing sticker shock at the gas pump and widespread economic distress. The price more than doubled again in 1979 due to temporary disruption in oil supplies during the Iranian Revolution.
In a televised speech in April 1977, Carter painted a stark picture of our country “running out of gas and oil.” To help solve the problem, he proposed resorting to “strict conservation” and “permanent renewable energy sources, like solar power.” Carter also advocated increased use of domestic coal (Scientific understanding of global warming through carbon-dioxide emissions was not yet well developed or appreciated by the general public).
Carter’s initiative was farsighted but fell victim to his lackluster personality, political clumsiness and just plain bad luck. Expensive oil, recession, inflation, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian hostage crisis led to his defeat in a bid for a second term in the 1980 presidential election.
Carter’s departure from office, coupled with lower world petroleum prices over the next two decades, effectively placed alternative energy on the back burner. Solar power, though it has expanded rapidly over the past 10 years, still only satisfies about 1% of U.S. energy needs.
While foreign oil dependence and the risk of sharp hikes in oil prices remain as looming problems, climate change has added new urgency to the call for an accelerated shift away from fossil-based and towards renewable forms of energy, such as wind, tidal, biomass and geothermal.
The Unity group hopes to persuade President Obama to install new solar panels on the executive mansion as a symbol of his commitment to renewable energy.
That should be easier to do than to persuade Congress to complete passage of a stalled bill that would significantly advance alternative-energy production – the American Clean Energy and Security Act, which cleared the House of Representatives on June 2, 2009.
The centerpiece of the bill, “cap-and-trade,” would gradually limit greenhouse gas emissions from utilities, large industrial plants, and petroleum and natural gas producers and importers, ratcheting them down to 80% of 2005 levels by 2050.
Emitters exceeding permissible limits would be given a choice of either cutting back or purchasing credits from other emitters who were below the limit. The system would make carbon dioxide emissions more expensive, thereby increasing the cost of burning fossil fuels and giving comparative advantage to renewable energies which are carbon neutral.
When the bill arrived in the Senate, it bogged down in a morass of overlapping committee hearings, competing proposals, fierce lobbying by the petroleum and coal industries, and uncompromising opposition by senators from oil- and coal-producing states, such as Oklahoma’s James Inhofe and Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu.
Not even intense public backlash against the oil industry due to BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, nor proffered legislative sweeteners for nuclear power, off-shore drilling and coal production, could dislodge it.
Last July, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid gave up trying to achieve passage, at least for the remainder of the year.
Though far more politically adept than Carter, Obama’s luck and timing on this issue may be no better than his hapless predecessor’s.
Obama has already expended most of his “political capital” on ambitious measures to bailout large banks and the domestic auto industry, stimulate the economy, reform health care, and increase regulation of financial institutions. He has little left with which to push his energy and environmental agenda through Congress.
Besides, with unemployment and foreclosure rates stuck at high levels, voters are anxious and angry at every elected official in Washington. The Clean Energy and Security Act would increase electric utility costs in the short run (though nowhere near the levels its opponents claim), and that could spell political trouble for anyone who supported it.
If, as widely predicted, November’s mid-term elections reduce or eliminate Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, the opportunity for passage of an energy/climate bill will become bleaker yet. Republicans are unlikely to sign onto another major Obama reform measure, even a watered-down one.
In the interest of not making a bad situation worse, perhaps the Unity group should ditch its solar panel – a reminder of one of America’s least lucky presidents – and substitute a windmill in its place. If all else fails, at least they can tilt at the windmill.