A note recently came across my screen reminding me of an old story that Hemingway famously wrote 500 words a day. For me, 2014 needs to be a year of writing. And writing of anything, but in particular things related to my dissertation. The dissertation topics will come soon, but in due time. For now, musing on a recent conversation with my friend, Todd…
He was reviewing an internal proposal having to do with the cyclical nature of the push for renewable energy. While I was a bit too young (and geographically out of place) to remember the oil embargo in the 1970’s, Todd has a vivid recollection of hearing “OPEC” in the news and the push for solar energy. I have a faint recollection of “OPEC”, although Todd notes the proposal was more definitive in the blame as being “AOPEC”, or the Arab OPEC nations. Neither of us had heard the term “AOPEC”. Why would that be? Was OPEC definitively Arab in the 70’s and 80’s, so there was no need to differentiate?
Todd further noted a reference he recently found that mentioned the initial development of solar power generation in the 1800’s! “How could this be!?”, he asked. And if so, why isn’t solar power more predominant today? I suggested looking at the death of the electric car in the early 19th century. The details elude me, but I recall politics between auto manufacturers and the oil industry shifting the market to gas powered cars. One could look at this conspiratorially, but I only see business, not technological, ingenuity at work.
Business does not always seek the best technologies, but they do seek profit. Profit does not always steer towards technological innovation, so even when technologies are developed, the applications may suffer when big industry is involved in the market. Diffusion of innovation is dependent on marketing and marketing is dependent on industry. So, what happened to solar power? Oil was cheaper and had a bigger industry behind it; an industry that has pervaded to this day. Solar power today may be witnessing a third attempt to widespread acceptance: invention in the 1800’s, the oil embargo of the 1970’s, and possibly today as we weigh the merits of renewable energy. My outlook for this round remains rather bleak in light of the profit motive. Fossil fuels are still far too inexpensive to move industry to change focus in light of profit-seeking.
For solar power (or any renewable energy push) to win, we need to orchestrate a little social engineering: make the use of fossil fuels difficult to get or too expensive. For America, it will be a difficult, if not impossible. We are a country driven by individual freedom and everyone wants cheap energy sources. If our government tries to mandate usage, the citizen backlash is profound. Our democracy has proven itself to be a terrible place for environmental regulation.
The surge in dystopian stories, particularly with environmental themes, may be more fortune telling than we want to admit. The advice I give to my daughter: go out and enjoy nature while you can.