Energy Policy: No Time for Business as Usual
A reply to Dr. Val Finlayson
Weber State College -- October 13, 1977
A response to
an address by Dr. Val Finlayson, the Director of
Research and Development at Utah Power and Light Co.
The occasion was a panel, "Energy and Man's
Environment," sponsored by the Utah Endowment for
the Humanities. As the opening paragraph indicates,
this paper was prepared in haste and on short
I am grateful for the opportunity to appear,
in Dr. Olson's behalf and my own, as a respondent to Dr.
Finlayson's paper. I will apologize just this once for the
manifest results of the brief time available to me to prepare
these remarks -- I was asked only yesterday to fill in for my
colleague who was, in turn, abruptly advised of a time conflict.
Accordingly, I have had little opportunity to research,
document, or refine my remarks. Please forgive, therefore, any
extemporaneous replies in the discussion that might be taken
from the top of my head. Most of the documented points that I
will make in the body of this reply will be from a single source
-- Dr. Barry Commoner's informative and provocative book, The
Poverty of Power (New York: Bantam, 1976) -- which I
would urge you all to read.
In the brief time at his disposal, Dr.
Finlayson has covered some vitally significant ground. Because
of the scope of his endeavor and the brevity of his time, much
has been left unsaid. This, of course, is unavoidable, and I can
well feel much sympathy for the difficulties thus involved.
Still, I think a few questions might be raised concerning some
omissions from his paper. In all, I would like to raise a few
brief points and close with two more extended responses.
First, Dr. Finlayson describes electricity as
a "more useful and environmentally acceptable form of energy."
In the short view, there is much to be said for this assessment.
For instance, in the context of the private home, the
description seems apt. But in the long view, this remark may
lend an erroneous impression. In point of fact, electricity is
not, strictly speaking, an "energy source" at all. It is an
"energy conveyer." Nature supplies us with no electricity;
rather, it supplies the primary sources of electricity.
Thus the "environmental impact" and cost of electricity must
include the impact and cost of producing electricity -- be it
from oil, gas, nuclear fission, the sun, or whatever. Moreover,
this assessment must include the necessary energy loss due to
conversion and conveyance.
Secondly, Dr. Finlayson lists Utah's
energy resources. But the list does not include Utah's cleanest
energy resource, namely a combination of (a) sunlight, (b) in a
desert climate, (c) falling upon abundant and cheap open spaces.
I will have much more to say shortly about solar energy.
Third, missing from Dr. Finlayson's list of
energy sources is the promising resource of bio-mass and
the recycling of agricultural and municipal wastes. Such
processes produce such highly efficient and clean fuels as
methane and methanol (combustion products are CO2 and
water) and as a bonus, a supply of such basic resources as
metals, glass, and fertilizers.
Fourth, Dr. Finlayson criticizes President
Carter's energy plan as "a social plan to redistribute the
wealth in the nation." I should like to hear his reply to the
charge that existing arrangements, and even more, some proposals
of the energy industry would also "redistribute wealth"
-- namely from consumers to the energy companies.
I would like to turn now to a consideration of
what I believe to be the most promising area of energy research
and development -- an energy source that is clean, abundant,
renewable. diversified, and potentially inexpensive.
I mean, of course, the constant and eternal sun. I would
suggest, with many physicists and ecologists, that the light at
the end of the energy tunnel is sunlight. But our energy
companies, and their representatives in Washington, do not seem
to agree. Witness the 1978 research budget for ERDA: $1.7
billion for nuclear energy and $421 million for solar energy.
And this solar budget is a quantum jump from a few years ago. In
1973, it was much worse. Federal expenditures then "for the
development of practical uses of solar energy amounted to less
than one percent of the total energy-research budget." [Commoner
Is solar power technologically practical? For
some consumer uses it is both practical and in use. Dr.
To provide enough power for the
household's space heat under most demanding conditions
(December in the central part of the United States) W.E.
Morrow of MIT estimates that about 1300 square feet of
[solar] collector would be needed, or a square about 36
feet on edge. This is slightly more than the roof area
of a typical suburban two-story home. [Commoner - 125].
It is of interest, therefore, to
determine the collector area that would be required to
meet the nation's need for electric power. According to
Morrow, if the entire present U.S. output of electric
power were to be produced by solar-powered
steam-electric generators of the central-tower design,
operating at 30-percent efficiency (an attainable
figure), about 780 square miles of collectors would be
needed. This represents about .03 of the land area used
for farming, or about 2 percent of the land area used
for roads. There is room enough. [Commoner - 126]
But isn't solar heat prohibitively expensive?
Again, I quote from The Poverty of Power:
Solar installations to provide between
50 and 75 percent of the low-quality energy for space
heat and hot water are now economically advantageous in
certain places (such as Albuquerque) and in other places
under limited circumstances (for example, in St. Louis
if the solar equipment is installed by the
house-holder). Given that the present costs of solar
collectors are based on small-scale manufacture and
should fall significantly as production is expanded, and
given that conventional energy prices are increasing
rapidly, such mixed solar/conventional installations
could become the most economical alternative in most
parts of the United States within the next few years.
[Commoner - 141]
Direct production of electricity can now
be achieved by photovoltaic or "solar" cells, but at an
enormous cost: $10,000 per kilowatt of generating capacity, as
against about $300. per kw. of capacity from power plants. But
solar cells are now laboriously assembled by hand. If capital
commitment and research and development funds were generously
applied to this promising energy source, surely we could develop
mass production techniques that would reduce this cost to a
competitive fraction. We await, in this field, a move from the
spinning wheel to the power shuttle loom. And just imagine the
result: sunlight on your roof made immediately available for the
electrical appliances in your house, with surplus home-made
electricity converted by electrolysis into hydrogen. This
pollution-free fuel could then be reconverted, at night and on
cloudy days, back to the utilities through the
transmission lines or gas mains, thus reversing the meters on
your house. You might conceivably get a check, rather
than a bill, during those summer months that you were away from
home and your solar cells kept operating. The opportunities are
enormous and technologically quite feasible. Yet somehow we hear
little of these opportunities from the energy companies.
Dr. Commoner's summary of the advantages of
solar power will serve as my own:
There is a broader lesson to be
learned in what we know the the special properties of
solar energy. Since it is radiant energy, it is an
ephemeral thing; unless it is used, it is quickly
transformed into heat and lost to space. Unlike oil or
uranium, sunlight is not a commodity to be bought and
sold; it cannot be possessed; its value is not inherent,
but derives from its use--the outcome of its relation to
a process, to a a task. Solar energy enjoins us to
attend to the task; to find the best way to link the
task to resources; to cherish the resources that nature
lends us; to find value in their social use, rather than
profit in their private possession. [Commoner - 144]
Commoner's final clause, I believe, may
suggest a motive for the otherwise mysterious indifference of
private industry, and it's congressional
interest-representatives in Congress, to a commitment to solar
energy. A contemplation of social and technological
potentialities against legislative and interest-bound realities,
can only lead the informed spectator to a savage but unavailing
My final comment follows Dr. Finlayson's
remark that "The no-growth' community has found survival in the
energy issue, but their ill-directed efforts are falling on deaf
Of all the questions to arise out of
environmental and energy debates, perhaps the most pointless and
unproductive is: "Are you or are you not in favor of growth?"
This question, I believe, is roughly comparable to: "Do you
approve of human behavior?" or "Are you in favor of government
in general?" I submit that anyone who answers such questions
with a single "yes" or "no," deserves no further hearing. The
only proper beginning response, of course, is "yes
no -- it all depends."
Let me suggest a complex answer to this
inappropriately simple question: "Do you approve of Growth?" No,
I don't approve of growth:
_____ in crime
_____ in pollution levels
_____ in social unrest
_____ in disease
_____ in aimless T.V. viewing
Yes, I do approve of growth:
_____ in literacy and artistic
_____ in life span and health
_____ in social order
_____ in human freedom
_____ in knowledge and
_____ in human benevolence and
"But do you approve of growth in energy
It all depends. No, if it involves the
growth of items in the first list. Yes, if it furthers
the growth of items in the second list. And we have not even
asked the question, "Which kind of energy use?" In short,
yes, if energy and economic growth serve human
welfare. No,, if we make such growth the end to
which human institutions and culture must serve, and perchance
be sacrificed, as means. But don't ask, "Do you believe in
growth? -- period." Don't ask, and expect an intelligent, yet
If we treat energy growth not as an end but as
a means to human welfare, we may have occasion to return to the
discourse of social policy and planning the simple word
"enough." When God told Adam and Noah to "replenish the earth"
we might assume he believed man intelligent enough to stop when
the task was complete. When I reached my late teens, my growth
in stature ceased. I was tall enough. Had I continued, I would
soon have become gigantic, developed kidney and heart failure,
and died. I did not, however, cease to grow in girth, and my
health and appearance have suffered accordingly.
Should our economy and energy output grow? Of
course -- so long as such growth is consistent with long-term
human welfare. Until, that is, we have grown enough. What
is "enough"? That is a question for intelligent and informed
policy analysts, legislators, and citizens to decide. But in
these deliberations, let us avoid the dogma of constant growth.
In the words of Ed Abbey, that precious and irreplaceable
irritant to Utah complacency, "Growth, for the sake of growth,
is the ideology of the cancer cell."