Several weeks ago, I published a copy of an advertisement labeled as a “smoking gun” that was a direct attack on nuclear energy paid for by the Oil Heat Institute of Long Island. Today, one of the people I follow on Twitter shared a link to a blog post featuring an advertisement that might surprise people in a different way – it is a large layout advertisement providing the results of an Exxon sponsored solar energy competition. Here are some interesting quotes from the advertisement, which ran in 1977, the same year that I graduated from high school.
Exxon believes making solar energy practical and developing other energy resources are among America’s most important tasks. Even with widespread conservation efforts and full development of our remaining oil and gas resources, new energy sources will be required to help ease our growing dependence on imported oil.
I am a curious sort of person who likes to check up on the accuracy of such predictions. According to energy production tables 1.5a and 1.5b available at the US Energy Information Agency web site, the total amount of solar thermal plus solar PV energy produced in the US has grown from 0.055 quadrillion BTUs (Quads) in 1989 to 0.081 quadrillion BTUs (Quads) in 2007. (The table does not start until 1989 and it does not include any data later than 2007 yet.) The total US energy consumption is roughly 100 quadrillion BTU. With high interest and high praise from a large, technically competent and well endowed sponsor like Exxon, it seems that solar energy should have grown faster if the judgement about its potential was accurate. Here is another excerpt from the advertisement:
Exxon believes solar energy’s future is bright. It will grow into an important energy source for America because of the contributions of the many people and the many companies that will be competing for your business.
I believe that Exxon engineers and scientists clearly recognized the limitations of solar energy and knew that it would never be competitive with oil and gas. I even believe that the marketing department also knew the same thing, but thought that touting solar energy was a good business decision. It would make the company seem a bit more warm and fuzzy, it would distract people who do not really understand technology into believing that there was some kind of magical solution just around the corner, and it would not do a thing to disrupt the existing – and amazingly profitable – business of supplying a growing fossil fuel addiction.
In contrast, uranium fission produced 2.6 quadrillion BTUs in 1977, 5.5 quadrillion BTUs in 1989 and 8.4 quadrillion BTUs in 2008. The average production cost of electricity in US nuclear power plants is only 1.9 cents per kilowatt-hour; almost none of that cost changes whether the power plant is operating at full power or no power. Metering the electricity production is almost worthless, customers could be billed on a capacity basis with “unlimited” kilowatt hours, just like they are with cellular phones or Internet access.
Can you see why I get so defensive when people laugh at nuclear power advocates and say how wrong we were because an appointed chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission once said the following:
It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter, will know of great periodic regional famines in the world only as matters of history, will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds, and will experience a lifespan far longer than ours as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age.”
Lewis L. Strauss
Speech to the National Association of Science Writers, New York City September 16th, 1954.
It seems that Strauss was not so far off; my own father was an adult in 1957. He could have been in that audience. We are well on our way to meeting the vision stated. Now if we can just start building plants again and apply some known manufacturing and construction techniques that reduce costs with increasing production volume, we might be able to really drive the costs down.