Once upon a time, at the height of the so-called Cold War in the 1950s, the United States first became involved in something called the “Space Race” with its arch-rival, the now-defunct Soviet Union. Rocket technology had evolved dramatically during the recently-concluded World War, and in the decade afterward, both the US and the USSR had developed this to such an extent that for the first time flight beyond earth’s atmosphere became conceivable.
To the surprise of the US government – and of most Americans – it was the Soviets who got the jump on America by launching the Sputnik 1 satellite in October, 1957. Although little Sputnik was probably smaller than WALL-E’s head, the success of this crude satellite sparked a crisis in the halls of power in Washington. America of course had already inaugurated its own rocket program – the singularly ill-named Project Vanguard – but this effort had failed to launch a satellite first. Those darn Russians beat us, angry politicians of both parties cried! Whereupon the US government promptly committed many billions of (pre-inflation) dollars not only to catch up to the Soviets, but to surpass them, with a manned moon landing as the ultimate goal – a milestone the US triumphantly reached with the Apollo 11 flight nearly twelve years later, in July 1969.
This very serious and expensive competition between the two superpowers resulted not only in bragging rights for the victor, but major technological breakthroughs, many of which (the Internet, cell phones, ATMs) have had what most people would regard as a positive effect on human life, in areas far removed from the narrow realm of space travel. It has even been claimed that the Space Race helped spark the modern environmental movement: pictures of earth taken from space evoked a worldwide consciousness of both the beauty and fragility of our planet.
Knowing well the above history, this writer is amazed by the behavior of the US government and public in its response – or rather, non-response – to the swift ascendancy of so many rival countries in the area of solar power, in comparison with America’s relatively lackluster progress. Given the life-and-death importance of energy resources in the coming decades, and the vastly greater imperative (compared to that of putting a man on the moon) to develop viable sustainable sources of energy, America ought to see itself in the midst of a “Solar Crisis” far surpassing the Space Crisis of the mid-1950s. Yet, when news comes out about, say, cloudy Germany leading the world in solar, or South Africa investing over 5 billion dollars in renewable energy (mostly solar) development to end its dependence on coal, the reaction, if any, in America’s capital as well as on Main Street, is a shrug of indifference.
Where is the old competitive spirit of the Cold War years? Competition in the context of militaristic political conflicts – particularly war – seems to me invariably regrettable. But competition between nations for a technological goal may ultimately yield a positive result, if the goal itself is good. Few environmentally-aware persons would argue that a permanent transition to renewables, particularly solar, would not be a good goal for America. That’s why I’d like to call for a new Solar Race for the US, analogous to the Space Race of the ‘Fifties and ‘Sixties.
What would such a race be like? Obviously, it would mean lots and lots of federal and state funds – equaling and hopefully surpassing the superfluous subsidies currently thrown at the fossil fuel industry – to be invested both in technological development and incentives to consumers to go solar. But it would involve much more than that. A public awareness campaign would be created that would portray solar power in a worldwide context, and our national honor as dependent upon our ability to compete successfully with other nations in this arena. Making solar hip, therefore, would become a major national priority. Celebrities would be recruited to extol its virtues. Some of the excitement of the new that characterized the birth of the motorcar and of aviation in the early 20th Century (see my post on the flight of the Solar Impulse) could be experienced again, but with the knowledge that this time the result would not be traffic jams or jet fuel-polluted skies, but a much more livable planet. And the old American pioneer spirit, last seen in this country with the rise of hero astronauts like John Glenn and Neil Armstrong in the 1960s, would be revived for this campaign, including perhaps in an area (which I have previously discussed in an early post in this very blog) whose ultimate possibilities are as yet unknown: space-based solar power.
So what would be the goal? Obviously, Americans love to trump other countries, so “beating Germany” could provide the same satisfaction as “beating the Soviets” did after Apollo 11. But the ultimate satisfaction would be the knowledge that the US will have made itself the pacesetter in a technology that not only clearly represents the future, but one that will help to ensure that mankind has a future. So the ultimate beneficiary for such a revival of American competitiveness might well be, paradoxically, the entire earth.
However, I’m not naïve enough to believe that the will to realize this dream is going to come from the current fossil-fuel-loving political or media establishment. Rather, it must come from the grassroots. Those who are already in the solar industry, as well as those who write or read blogs like this, must step up to the plate, and help to make the ideal of a solar-powered planet a reality.