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A Sunshine Nation: Revisiting Our National Energy Policy

by H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D.

Years ago, while living in the “Sunshine State” of Florida, I argued with a representative of a regional energy utility (one fueled by natural gas and petroleum) who informed me that solar energy was not a viable solution to the high energy demands of the State’s citizens.  She offered the high costs of conversion from fossil fuels to solar technologies hand-in-hand with a low return on investment until years later.  Further the representative pointed out the unreliability of sunlight as a source of constant power and then touted the low demand for alternative energies.  I asked her if she could really say such things objectively, given her high-paid position with the utilities company.  I couldn’t help but wonder if her arguments were also similar to those offered against the automobile when inventor Henry Ford was informed that the horseless carriage was only a fad!  Or, better yet, when inventor Lee DeForest postulated, “While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially it is an impossibility.”  Peter Ustinov once remarked, “If the world should blow itself up, the last audible voice would be that of an expert saying it can’t be done.”

We are a “Sunshine Nation” too often manipulated by the experts and stakeholders of an outmoded energy technology, bellowing mightily, “Solar energy isn’t feasible.”  Yet, given that the amount of solar energy hitting Earth exceeds the total energy consumed by humanity by a factor of over 20,000 times, it’s a simple matter of technology investment – a qualitative, not quantitative approach to societal need – and not any pre-ordained impossibility as suggested by these prognosticators with a coarse commitment to their industries’ bottom line!  Solar energy IS feasible; and those who argue against it, including a small conservative cadre of ill-informed (or ill-willed) politicians on Capitol Hill, are snakes in the grass for suggesting otherwise.  If they were truly for energy independence in the United States, they would have been fighting for solar, wind, and geothermal technologies years ago!

Last year, I made a pitch in this newspaper column for a national energy policy (see the 7 April 2011 issue).  Now I would like to revisit my proposal in summary, especially as our national elections loom on the horizon.  The target date for full implementation of my proposal is somewhere between 2050 and 2075.

• Part 1: Convert most coal-fired power plants to natural gas by 2020.

• Part 2: Phase out all other carbon-emitting power plants by 2025 to 2030.

• Part 3: Build an additional 200 to 400 nuclear power plants in the United States by 2025 and, at the same time, aggressively pursue alternative types of power generation such as solar, hydro, and wind.

• Part 4: Shut down all carbon-emitting power stations, including natural gas, by 2050.

• Part 5: Decommission all nuclear power plants and provide all energy needs via alternatives by 2075.

• Part 6: Phase out all federal government subsidies (e.g., tax breaks and government protection programs) that keep gasoline prices artificially low for consumers; simultaneously, provide a carrot-and-stick incentives program to the automobile industry to develop clean, safe, and economically encouraging transportation technologies.  As activist and attorney Robert Kennedy, Jr. once said, “You show me a polluter, I’ll show you a subsidy.”  Carbon-based energy companies probably remain solvent only with the help of subsidies from the federal government.

• Part 7: Emphasize conservation and stewardship in a world of 7 billion people trying to live sustainably with finite resources.  For example, adamantly refuse the development for petroleum exploration and extraction of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and other irreplaceable treasures held in the public trust.  Further, disallow the Keystone XL Pipeline (see my 12 January 2012 column) and other such proposals for their likely impacts on the environment and their unlikely positive influence on energy independence and net jobs creation for the nation.

Note that these various parts are not incremental steps, but are interlinked components of a systems approach to our national energy needs.  Of course, this plan guarantees the extinction of petroleum, coal, and natural gas companies, at least as they are currently engineered.  Indeed the term, fossil, may apply to more than just what they extract from the Earth, but also to their dead-end technologies and the outdated mind-sets in their board rooms.  Thus, it’s particularly irksome during this election year cycle that so many politicians and pundits are advocating vociferously for short-term quasi-solutions for our collective energy needs.  Developing ANWR, installing a cross-country pipeline, and pushing for more and more exploration for limited natural resources such as petroleum and coal (even via potentially dangerous methods such as hydraulic fracturing) are all dead-end, quick-fix diversions from the only sustainable path ahead: the promotion and expansion of next-generation energy sources to power society.  It’s just a matter of resolve to turn such dreams into reality for our nation abundant with near-limitless sunlight, wind, and geothermal resources.  “It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow,” (Robert Goddard, 1882-1945).

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  1. Congratulations, Dr. Rinker. That’s a thoughtful, careful program you’re proposing – versus all the political rhetoric that calls itself “energy planning.” I may not agree with every single thing that you say, but your perspective is a welcome one. Here’s hoping…

  2. When I was a small child we used oil lamps and burned wood and coal for heat…Certainly we have come far enough to want to up grade our fuel for cooking food, warmth(ETC) I have always dreamed of solar heating from the sun.Clean heat and safe heat. Who knows maybe one day this will come to pass.
    These so called politicians need to stop acting like kids and bullies saying “my way or no way”
    Just makes me wonder how many have stock in these Gas and Oil Companies,
    Keep up the good work. You are so much better at expressing your self but we try.

  3. Dr. Rinker: My fondest wish is that there would be many, many voices echoing your conclusions and proposals, but unfortunately it seems that far too many people either don’t know or don’t care to learn from experts such as you. Keep your voice “crying in the wilderness” and maybe, in the not-too-distant future the world will wake up and heed.

  4. I agree with some of your views and this was very good reading. I cannot help but wonder: if we convert mostly to natural gas by 2020 and then shut it down in 2050, would this result in being a cost efective plan-only 30 years? Would this also not apply to the 200-400 nuclear plants being built by 2025 and then decommissioned by 2075? We need to be independent from other nations. Free-trade is good and I know the majority of pricing is determined by Wallstreet, but they definitely could care less about you and I. (Their color is green but money green) I can definitely see solar panels as working for years and years and believe we will see many new ideas in the future. Thank you for caring.

  5. Mr. Rinker,

    I just read your article in the Roanoke Star-Sentinel March 30, 2012 and thought your words were right on. I have been a solar design advocate and have been putting up with the crazy comment looks since I was a teenager.

    I constantly scratch my head that the average solar panels are only putting out 20-22% of the energy they take in with the sluggish 8-10 year ROI rhetoric. I find it illogical that we can make incredible world and space technologies, but yet all countries are stunted with development of solar power. And I find it hard to fathom all the costs and wastes hidden in maintaining and growing power grids – and my electric bill keeps increasing to subsidize the growth.

    I think the key word here is FREE (aka untaxable). Energy companies and stock-owning government officials shudder at the thought of reductions in power subscribers.

    The phrase ‘free energy’ is the real root of expensive and inefficient panels. Take the homeowners’ market for instance. Can you imagine the effect it would have on AEP or Virginia Power if Virginia residential customers were able to afford and make proper use of solar panels to just power their basic electrical needs on SOME days? Or better yet, no need to be on a power grid at all unless you wanted to have back up power that you pay for?

    I would be a willing partner to research the issues surrounding the lagging development of efficient solar energy. It would be a baby step – but it would be a step in exploring what is really behind this continuing power eclipse. I am not an engineer, but a passionate and life-long student of design, facts, and observation.

    If we need to generate a solar movement – count me in not as a follower, but a leader. A mass SPA (Solar Power for All) movement is going to be the only way free-to-cheaper, cleaner energy is ever going to happen.

  6. We humans have discovered nuclear fission, harnessed its power, developed an entire infrastructure that depends on it, and generated radioactive waste that will continue emitting energy for millenia(!). For these reasons, we humans cannot and should not ever abandon nuclear energy – not now and not 100 years from now. We could, however, phase out the practice of mining urananium.

    Nuclear power is at a crossroads, with exciting technologies that may: (1) allow us to use highly hazardous spent nuclear fuel for energy (traveling wave reactors, for example); and (2) replace uranium with thorium (mining and waste of the thorium fuel cycle is not nearly as dangerous as that of the uranium fuel cycle). These changes will require sizeable research and infrastructure investments, and they will be to the chagrin of some, such as nuclear warhead manufacturers who will no longer have a supply of fresh plutonium. Still, research and investment in next generation nuclear generators must be allowed to progress and must not be halted. Let us *not* follow the Swedish example, where nuclear research was disastrously halted for over a decade, decimating a generation of possible research in the field. If we abandon our journey, we leave our ancestors to marvel the radioactive monuments that we have left them which thay can never hope to fully understand.

  7. Even though I do not agree with all of the proposals made by Dr. Rinker, I applaude his willingness to keep these issues on the front burner. (no pun intended). Since all of our energy sources and their
    controls are governed by the people we elect to the House, the Senate and the Presidency, we should take a shortcut and tell these elected officials to get on with it. Oh, I forgot that once are elected officials are in office they no longer listen to the people who elected them but instead listen to the special interests and lobbyists who line their pockets with money.

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