Oil, Profits, and the Question of Alternative Energy

Article excerpt

As oil and gas prices continue to rise, the sun has apparently set on the development of solar power and other forms of alternative energy, despite official claims that the United States is committed to making them a success. The explosion in oil and gas prices has been attributed to numerous causes, but little attention has been given to the lackadaisical effort to develop alternative fuel sources and the continuous quest by the oil industry to discover more oil. Big oil has both money and power, and it shouldn't be any surprise how much can be accomplished, or prevented, with such a potent combination.

The application of solar power is not a new idea. The ancient Greeks and Romans developed mirrors that would direct the sun's rays and cause a target to burst into flames within seconds. Nearly two centuries ago in 1839, Edmund Becqurel, a French experimental physicist, discovered that sunlight could produce electricity--almost fifty years before the first successful internal combustion engine was built.

During the late 1800s, harnessing the sun's rays to produce hot water was a booming business in the United States. Although the Industrial Revolution was in high gear and remarkable discoveries and inventions abounded, it took over 100 years for the first photovoltaic cell (a cell capable of producing wattage when exposed to radiant energy) to be developed by Bell Laboratories in 1954. Considering that photovoltaic cells have been the exclusive power source for satellites since the 1960s, and how rapidly television evolved during an era known as the Atomic Age, it is a wonder that solar technology hasn't advanced further.

The utilization of solar energy was briefly resurrected during the 1970s when the United States appeared to be committed to pursuing a technology that had the potential to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels. In April 1977, in the midst of an "energy crisis," President Jimmy Carter began a bold initiative to develop solar energy and other alternative fuels when he unveiled his National Energy Plan, which included setting an example by placing solar panels on the White House. Carter announced a "national goal of achieving 20 percent of the nation's energy from the sun and other renewable resources by the year 2000," and he introduced legislation that would provide homeowners with tax breaks for investing in this promising technology. In 1979, Congress followed Carter's lead and approved a $20 billion development fund for synthetic and alternative fuels. It appeared that the alternative energy industry was finally getting the financial backing it needed to have a profound impact on the nation's energy needs.

During the period in which financial support for solar energy was growing and a "windfall tax" on the profits of the oil industry was imposed, the proponents of big oil were gathering their own resources on Capitol Hill. Political action committees (PACs) that were affiliated with oil and gas interests began to sprout and, from 1977 to 1979, they contributed over $2.6 million to House and Senate candidates. A report by Alan Berlow and Laura Weiss in Congressional Quarterly concluded that most of the money went to candidates "with strong pro-industry voting." Support for alternative energy took a downward spiral when Ronald Reagan (a former spokesperson for General Electric) was elected U.S. president and became a staunch ally of corporate America.

By the late 1970s, oil companies had bought out many of the patents for photovoltaic cells, and corporate giants like Atlantic Richfield, Amoco, Exxon, and Mobil took control of solar power companies. This trend would lead Alfred Dougherty, former director of the Federal Trade Commission's bureau of competition to warn, "If the oil companies control substantial amounts of substitute fuels ... they may slow the pace of production of alternative fuels in order to protect the value of their oil and gas reserves. …