John Locke Update / Research Newsletter

Renewable energy has been ‘almost there’ since the 1970s

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The previous newsletter discussed in brief how the renewable energy lobby has, over decades, been promising politicians and voters some things they have yet to achieve.

Those promises are that:

  • renewable energy is just a few short years away from being cost competitive with traditional energy sources
  • renewable energy is on the verge of being able to power the state and nation
  • renewable energy sources need generous tax credits for just a few short years more before they can fully stand on their own

Making those promises isn’t a recent phenomenon. No, for an industry whose business model is admittedly based in capturing "government goodies," it has been a successful rainmaker for decades. Decades.

New crops of policymakers, every bit as concerned about jobs and energy issues and also responsible governing as their predecessors, find the promises compelling. Yes, they reason, it’s cronyism, but if it’s just for a few years more, and if it’s true we can reap all these wonderful benefits afterward, why not?

It plays on the best of intentions, it offers a big future payoff with only a little initial investment, and that payoff stays just out of reach unless there is a little more investment …

Which bears remarkable similarity to the stuff of con jobs.

The following quotations are from Institute for Energy Research founder and CEO Robert L. Bradley Jr.’s twopart series on the long history of the solar industry and from IER’s six-year-old report "Will renewables become cost-competitive anytime soon?":

  • "Mixed solar/conventional installations could become the most economical alternative in most parts of the United States within the next few years." — Barry Commoner, The Poverty of Power (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976), p. 151.
  • "The range of energy possibilities grouped under the heading ‘solar’ could meet one-fifth of U.S. energy needs within two decades." — Robert Stobaugh and Daniel Yergin, "The End of Easy Oil," in Stobaugh and Yergin, eds., Energy Future, Report of the Energy Project of the Harvard Business School (New York: Random House, 1979), p. 12.
  • In 1983, Booz, Allen & Hamilton did a study for the Solar Energy Industries Association, American Wind Energy Association, and Renewable Energy Institute. It stated: "The private sector can be expected to develop improved solar and wind technologies which will begin to become competitive and self-supporting on a national level by the end of the decade [i.e., by 1990] if assisted by tax credits and augmented by federally sponsored R&D."
  • "In 1986, Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute lamented the untimely scale back of tax breaks for renewable energy since the competitive viability of wind and solar technologies was ‘one to three years away.’ Over a decade later, the renewable energy lobby, pressured by a regulatory restructuring to allow customers to competitively procure electricity, is lobbying the U.S. Congress to enact a national quota for solar, wind, biomass, and small hydro out as far as the year 2020." — Wells, K., ‘As a National Goal, Renewable Energy Has An Uncertain Future’ Wall Street Journal, February 13, 1986, pp. 1, 19.
  • In 1986, a representative of the American Wind Energy Association testified: "The U.S. wind industry has … demonstrated reliability and performance levels that make them very competitive. It has come to the point that the California Energy Commission has predicted windpower will be that State’s lowest cost source of energy in the 1990s, beating out even large-scale hydro. … We are not quite there. We have hopes. — Statement of Michael L.S. Bergey, American Wind Energy Association in Renewable Energy Industries, Hearing before the Subcommittee on Energy Conservation and Power of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, House of Representatives, 99th Cong., 2nd sess. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1986), p. 129.
  • "I think … the consensus … is after the year 2000, somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of our energy could come from solar technologies, quite easily." — Scott Sklar, Solar Energy Industries Association. Quoted in Solar Power, Hearing before the Subcommittee on Energy and Power of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, House of Representatives, 100th Cong., 1st sess. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1987), p. 12.
  • In 1990, two energy analysts at the Worldwatch Institute predicted an almost complete displacement of fossil fuels in the electric generation market within a couple decades [i.e. 2010]: "Within a few decades, a geographically diverse country such as the United States might get 30 percent of its electricity from sunshine, 20 percent from hydropower, 20 percent from wind power, 10 percent from biomass, 10 percent from geothermal energy, and 10 percent from natural-gas-fired cogeneration." — Christopher Flavin and Nicholas Lenssen, Beyond the Petroleum Age: Designing a Solar Economy (Washington: Worldwatch Institute, 1990), p. 47.
  • "Federal officials, aware that solar power breakthroughs have shined and faded almost as often as the sun, say the Enron project could introduce commercially competitive technology without expensive Government aid." — Allen Myerson, Solar Power, for Earthly Prices, New York Times, November 15, 1994.
  • "Before maybe the end of this decade, I see wind and solar being cost-competitive without subsidy with new fossil fuel." — DOE Secretary Stephan Chu, Address to Pew Charitable Trusts, March 23, 2011.

The years come and go, but the song remains the same — because the business model remains the same.

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Jon Sanders studies regulatory policy, a veritable kudzu of invasive government and unintended consequences. As Director of Regulatory Studies at the John Locke Foundation, Jon gets into the weeds in all kinds of policy areas, including electricity, occupational licensing, hydraulic… ...

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