The plot against the sun


Walter Stewart December 15 1975

The plot against the sun


Walter Stewart December 15 1975

The plot against the sun


Walter Stewart

John Keyes is long and lean and lanky. An angular man of knobs and spikes, he looks like one of the pines of his Nederland, Colorado, home. He talks more than a pine tree, though. Oh, my, yes. Quietly, but with fierce intensity, he charges that there is a plot afoot to block, suppress and control solutions to North America’s energy crisis, a plot, in particular, to foul up solar energy. Keyes, 38, is chairman of International Solarthermics Corporation, but he was born and bred on a farm in the hills back of Denver, where he still lives, and when he gets onto his favorite subject, he sounds more like an earnest farmer than a cool corporate executive. The large hands shoot out, the granite jaw wags,the Adam’s apple bobs, and the rage pours out. “In effect, they’re trying to steal the sun,’’ he splutters. “Oh. I know it’s crazy, I know it’s paranoid, but how the hell else do you explain what’s going on?”

John Keyes has written a book called The Solar Conspiracy which is full of eyerolling charges aimed at the usual gaggle of energy villains; the multinational oil companies, the nuclear industry, the electrical giants (often, they are all one and the same) and their legions of lobbyists. It’s all nonsense, 1 think. I hope.

Keyes owns the rights to a solar furnace, a simple thing that taps the sun to heat a house, and has received rave reviews in Popular Mechanics magazine. It is this that has led him to the borders of paranoia. A modest builder in Colorado, he discovered a couple of years ago that the people for whom he was putting up houses would soon be unable to get any natural gas with which to heat them, and who can afford electric heat (the local alternative)? So he set out to explore solar heating and, with what he calls “farmer logic,” devised an outfit that consists of a flock of black cups ranged in panels over a pile of stones. The sunshine hits the cups, is absorbed, heats the rocks, and turns them into a heat-storage chamber. A blower regulated by an ordinary thermostat delivers warm air on demand to the nearby house. The entire system sits in the backyard, looks like a toolshed, and costs roughly $4,500. International Solarthermics, the firm Keyes founded to promote the furnaces, does not sell them; that is done through licensees, who add their own cosmetic touches, their own names — Sunblazers or Energy King or Solar-Aire — and their own generous markup. Keyes’ company sells rights, does research, promotes the system and circulates consumer information to make sure nobody gets stung. (To date, Keyes calculates his company has distributed one million pieces of consumer information.)

It is not the ultimate energy solution. A solar furnace provides only between 30% and 90% of a home’s requirements and needs the backup of a conventional heating system. In Denver’s cool but sunny clime, it should provide anywhere up to 90% of required heat, but Keyes believes that “in Canada, generally, I guess it would cover about 60%.” That’s the first drawback. The second is that it requires more insulation than most homes now contain. Still, if a homeowner can save 60% of a $500 annual fuel bill, he has a good investment, even if the price of fuel doesn’t go up (there’s a laugh). And widespread use of such systems would take some of the strain off other resources (home heating takes about one fifth of our energy requirements) and significantly reduce pollution. Who could object?

Keyes complains that he has been subjected to a campaign of derision, harassment, bum reviews and industrial espionage, including a number of break-ins in which company files were searched but nothing was taken. “When we first started, it was just a question of superior sneers from the academics and little stories pointing out that I’m not an engineer [his BA is in philosophy j and that I once went bankrupt [it was an advertising venture and he says he is still paying off debts, although there is no legal requirement to do so]. Then the furnace started to catch on. Up until February, 1975, there were 58 solar homes recorded in the United States. Since then, we have sold between 150 and 300 and generated a lot of publicity. Oh. and I was always turning up at meetings waving my arms and raising hell. Now. there is a pretty direct campaign against me. Suits me fine. If they want to knock me, okay, as long as they leave the furnace alone.”

Keyes is nuts, isn’t he? After all, the Solar Energy Industries Association, organized by a Washington public relations firm as a trade association, gave its 1975 “Man of the Year” award to Congressman Mike McCormack of Washington, because he sponsored the Solar Heating And Cooling Demonstration Act to provide funds for

solar homes. “I don’t know who the SEIA is,” says Keyes, “although we joined. It’s a trade association without a trade. But I do know that McCormack could give Machiavelli lessons. He is the most outspoken advocate of nuclear power in the whole Congress. Hell, he’s known as ‘Supernuke.’ Why don’t you look at his act and see what it does?”

What McCormack’s act does is provide funds for solar homes, which will be monitored to test their efficiency over a five-year period. On the side there is provision for operational criteria to be drawn up and administered by the National Bureau of Standards. At first, it was proposed that 4.000 homes be built, but a new study — by the National Aeronautical and Space Administration, of all people — indicated that the $60 million originally budgeted would stretch over 650 homes only, and another $37 million would be required for “test equipment.” The solar solution now costs $76,923 a crack, plus $56,923 for test equipment, and it will be five years before the results begin to be collated, although, in fact, there have been solar homes in operation in Washington since the 1950s, and a number of U.S. universities have been collecting data on demonstration homes since then. (In one Washington experiment conducted during the coldest winter in 43 years, the bill for heat supplemental to a roof solar collector came to $6.30. )

“What does McCormack’s bill do to solar energy?” asks Keyes, and then answers the question himself: “Kills it dead. Suppose I come along and tell you I can install a solar furnace in your home for $4,500 and then you pick up the paper and find out that the government is going to try to tackle the job for $130,000 but won’t know if it works for five years. Would you buy? Would you, hell. This isn’t a solar energy program, it’s a solar stifling program.” Keyes contends that “any first-year engineering student” can tell if a solar furnace will work in a given location. Indeed, the technology of solar collectors is straightforward and well understood. Charts are available to show how much sunshine will be absorbed by a given surface, how much heat can be stored in water, rocks or gas, and how much heat is required to service a given home in a given climate. Two independent studies of Keyes’ system have done the mathematics and maintain it works just fine. In short, it doesn’t take a five-year program to prove the sun still shines. Then why, Keyes wants to know, this thicket of regulations? No government agency is required to plot the heat-producing capacity of an oil furnace or certify the British Thermal Units generated by an electric coil. Why should solar power, long studied, well understood, get such smothering scrutiny? Keyes’ theory is that McCormack, whose chief legislative accomplishment to date has been to get more money for nuclear development, has devised an act that will give a karate chop rather than a helping hand to solar energy. “In five years, we will be even more committed to nuclear reactors. In five years, we may be out of gas and oil. Anything can happen in five years and in the meantime, nothing will happen with solar furnaces.”

McCormack dismisses Keyes’ charges as nonsense. He admits to being a strong advocate of nuclear power (he helps pump more than $200 million annually into his district, mostly tied to nuclear projects), but he says the five-year period of his demonstration act is to protect American consumers, to make sure they are not seduced into buying shoddy solar systems that don’t work. John Andelin, his administrative aide, says that Keyes is a “shrewd salesman but an inept engineer. . .his furnace just won’t do what he claims.” Then why is it mentioned in literature McCormack sends out about solar equipment? “We’re not endorsing these things, we just say what’s out there.”

Perhaps Keyes is wrong or dumb or even — his word — paranoid, but there are some funny things going on in the search for energy alternatives, although the evidence of a concerted plot is thin. Energy solutions have been part of common knowledge for decades and, in some cases, centuries. The Egyptians used solar energy, windmills were turning lustily in Don Quixote’s time, geothermal power dates back to the last century and sea thermal power to the 1920s. Yet the money and time spent exploring these alternatives is tiny, while that spent on oil and gas and coal and nuclear research is staggering.

During 1974, government and industry in the United States spent nearly $1.8 billion on energy research and development, almost all of it on the old standbys. The government spent $12.2 million on solar energy (the industry spending was too low to register) and scarcely a dime on any other alternatives, while it was spending $566.8 million on nuclear research. Industry spent $710 million on petroleum, $300 million on nuclear energy, $10 million on coal and nothing measurable anywhere else. In Canada, the Science Council has compared “the billions of dollars that are expended on new gas pipelines, oil sand plants and construction of nuclear power stations” with “the minuscule efforts devoted to research work on solar or wind energy, for example. The amount of money spent in one day in exploratory drilling alone exceeds our entire annual effort on solar energy.”

The Americans are devoting two billion dollars to oil shale development, although nobody knows what to do with the mountains of debris that will result (about 1,125,000 tons of rock per day will be left over from strip mining) or where the water required in the process will come from in the arid areas where oil shale is prevalent. Canadians are pouring billions into tar sands development, although it has yet to be shown that we will get more energy out of the sands than we will have to put in to bring out the oil.

Nuclear energy is absorbing billions almost as fast as scientists are bobbing up to protest that it is the Devil’s instrument, a solution that may meet the energy problem by wiping out most of mankind. Conventional reactors produce plutonium as a byproduct, and plutonium is a substance 35,000 times more poisonous than cyanide by weight. What’s more, it retains its death-dealing properties for 24,400 years, the period of its “half-life.” No one has yet worked out a way to get rid of the stuff, though all kinds of bright ideas — like dropping it into salt mines or dumping it at sea — have been proposed. The next generation of reactors, called “breeders,” will be fueled by plutonium but will actually produce more of the stuff than they use (that’s why they’re called “breeders”). John W. Gofman, professor of medical physics at the University of California, has calculated that even if “with all circumstances of accidents, civil disorder, errors, etc., we still manage to contain 99.999% of the plutonium that will be produced over the next century, that one part in a million floating around will represent 27 trillion potential lung-cancer cases. And,” writes Gofman, “if only one particle out of every one million is inhaled annually thereafter, we would still be creating 27 million cases of lung cancer each year.”

There have already been a number of accidents involving plutonium in the United States. What will happen when we start to turn it out in huge quantities? At the moment, it is being bundled into sealed containers and stored. The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission pronounced these containers “essentially accident-proof,” but that hasn’t stopped huge leakages, one of 115,000 gallons at Hanford, Washington. Now the atomic whizzes are thinking of dumping the wastes into rockets and firing them off into space, and they hope some future generation will come up with a better idea before it’s too late.

If we can commit billions to creating history’s longest-lived killer in our search for energy, can’t we spare a buck to investigate safer possibilities? Nuclear fusion is the latest glamour entry in the energy race, but fusion requires operating temperatures of 60 to 100 million degrees centigrade and no one has yet worked out a way to contain these temperatures in practice (although in theory they can be held in magnetic fields). Even the most optimistic estimates give fusion power a start-up date of around 2000 A.D., much too late for our current needs. Yet hundreds of millions of dollars are spent each year on fusion. Coal, with its offshoots, coal gasification and coal liquefaction (producing natural gas, oil and some nasty side-effects: strip-mining, pollution and lung disease) also receives massive injections of funding. And the oil industry wants enough tax breaks, price hikes and other goodies to permit it to spend $10 billion a year over the next decade to find more petroleum to run out of in due course. Somewhere in this vast cornucopia of dollars there should be a dime or two to promote solutions that do not burn and do not kill and do not foul — and don’t even cost much.

Perhaps there will be. Although the Science Council in Ottawa has reaffirmed its faith in the nuclear option, it is talking about solar research. Although the $ 100billion energy corporation planned by the Ford administration in Washington will dole out funds mainly to oil and gas, a solar research institute is in the works and this year the U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration is asking for $89 million for solar funding (the nuclear figure is $1.63 billion).

The delays, hesitations and misdirections of the past can be read, as John Keyes reads them, as part of a giant conspiracy. There'are all those oil lobbyists, all the nuclear freaks, all the engineering firms with contracts to sell and publicists with stories to hustle swarming all over the body politic. Keyes is not alone in his criticism of the energy industry. A team of Washington researchers, in a study called The Energy Cartel, commissioned by the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association (a union), charged that “At best, the government appears inept and indecisive in its relationship with the oil industry... At worst, there appears to be an active cooperation, a partnership between the U.S. government and the oil companies which inevitably works against consumer interests.” David Freeman, director of the Ford Foundation’s Energy Policy Project, argues in Energy And The New Era that “For several decades, government policy left environmental protection and energy research and development (except for atomic energy) up to the industry; the results were a polluted environment and complete neglect of new sources of energy supply.” Wilson Clark, consultant for the Environmental Policy Centre, writes in Energy For Survival that the neglect of solar energy research may prove to be “the major failure of the American civilization.”

None of these complaints, however, confirms the existence of a conscious plot. Dr. Peter Glaser, vice-president of the Arthur D. Little Company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a man with his own energy solution to sell (see page 26 ), says, “I don’t see any giant conspiracy to block research.” Rather, says Glaser, the cheapness of oil and gas in the past made it unnecessary to consider alternatives, and now that other sources are required they will be found. “When corporations find that they can make money out of other solutions, they will turn to other solutions.” Arthur D. Little, ever alert, is now projecting a $1.3 billion market in solar climate control equipment by 1985.

A complicating factor is that the oil companies have large holdings in almost every energy alternative except solar . All 25 of the largest firms have ties to natural gas holdings. Eighteen of them have investments in oil shale. One fifth of all coal production is in the hands of oil companies, along with half of all U.S. uranium reserves. The only power-producing geothermal plant in Canada or the United States belongs to Union Oil of California. The oil companies naturally concentrate on what they do best — which is to produce and market oil and gas — and their dominance of the market and of energy policy almost guarantees the neglect of alternatives. Although Canada has a better hold on some resources (such as uranium), we are no better off, because the industry is dominated by foreign firms who do very little research.

Neither Canada nor the United States has had an energy policy. Instead, we have had oil and gas and nuclear policies, and they haven’t served us well. The preoccupation with nuclear power, for example, cannot be explained in terms of its efficiency — it has been more expensive, more dangerous, more erratic than anyone ever dreamed in the brave days of Atoms For Peace. But it has brought huge construction contracts, jobs and billions of dollars for industry, all factors that apparently count more than its failure to live up to advance billing. There may be another aspect to the nuclear fixation, too. Don Osborne of Zomeworks, a solar firm in Albuquerque, New Mexico, says, “You have a whole generation of scientists who were involved in the atomic bomb. They feel they have to atone for Hiroshima; these people have got to prove that the sword can be beaten into a ploughshare, no matter what.” A final hindrance to researching energy alternatives may lie in the fact that many of the most attractive solutions offer no role for the giant firms who absorb so much of our civilization’s attention. You don’t need a billion-dollar firm to turn out a solar collector. In fact, a small manufacturer may do the job better and cheaper. The solution may be to make proposals that sound as expensive and daffy as nu: clear power. What’s the fun of learning, as Steve Baer of Zomeworks contends, that you can supply much of the heating needs of a house by painting drums black, filling them with water, and stacking them up to store solar heat? Where are the research grants, the spin-off technology, the honorary degrees in that?

As a civilization, we have gargantuan appetites. We embrace the monumental, even if it is hideous. We adore excess, even if it may prove fatal. So it does not require a paranoid mind to conclude that there has indeed been a long-standing neglect of simple and obvious energy alternatives — neglect because they were simple and obvious. Nor is it paranoid to guess that some of the common sense ways out of our dilemma — drive slower, insulate better, put up solar collectors — will continue to be ignored in favor of continent-wide treasure hunts, nuclear monstrosities and multi-billion-dollar “ultimate” solutions.<C?