Once before, America stood on the threshold of a renewable-energy revolution. In the late 1970s, wind farms were popping up in California. Companies making solar photovoltaic cells were attracting waves of new capital. Passive solar building designs, ultra-efficient windows, and energy-saving lamps were all very chic. Biofuels had strong supporters in the farm and forestry sectors, and national labs were exploring cellulosic ethanol and diesel fuel from microalgae.
President Carter had declared a goal of obtaining 20 percent of the nation’s energy from renewable sources by the year 2000, and he had installed solar water heaters on the White House. New policies and funding would be needed to achieve the 20 percent goal, and I headed the federal laboratory charged with producing the policy roadmap. For reasons that still remain baffling, the Reagan administration was extremely hostile to renewable-energy sources. It ignored the policy roadmap and systematically crushed the wind, solar, and biofuel programs. President Reagan even ordered that the solar water heaters be ripped off the White House. For the last three decades, the renewableenergy industry has been something of a backwater in America.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world began waking up. Japan started pushing the envelope on solar electricity, and then Germany adopted a feed-in tariff that gave the industry a great shot of adrenaline. Worldwide solar sales have been growing 50 to 60 percent per year for the last decade. Denmark kept expanding the frontiers of wind technology; its innovations are now bearing fruit around the world. Enormous strides have been made in mapping and drilling deep for geothermal resources.