Alternative Energy and Politics

I’m becoming very interested in solar energy lately. To put that more accurately, now that I’ve completed my dissertation I’m taking some time to focus on a subject that has always interested me. I’m following Elon Musk’s example (when asked how he had learned enough about rocket science to start Space X, Musk said “I read a lot of books”) and reading a lot about the science of solar energy today and the ways it is being implemented in the US. The science, it turns out, is pretty straightforward. The complications are in the economics, because they have a whole lot more to do with subsidies, tax rebates, utility company policies and the like than they do with straightforward issues like cost and output.

Being a historian, one of the ways I’m looking into solar energy is historically. There hasn’t really been a whole lot written about the recent history of renewable energy in America (so maybe that’s a project for me). I ran across a recent article published by the Australian National University in a volume called Following the Sun. The article begins:

A popular aphorism holds that politics is not the business of changing things, but of keeping things the same. In the history of solar energy research, politics has never been far from the heart of the matter and, with it, have been the opposing tensions of progress and stasis – changing things versus keeping things the same. (“Solar energy in changing times,” p. 69)

This got me thinking about Elon Musk’s other company, Tesla. In addition to simply executing their plan with excellence, the genius of Tesla was clearly that they made all-electric cars sexy. I remember shaking my head years ago when the company announced they would make the Roadster first, beginning in 2008. Tesla sold 2,450 Roadsters between 2008 and 2012 at prices beginning at $109,000. The Model S began shipping in 2012, when Tesla produced 2,650 of them. It won Motor Trend’s Car of the Year Award in 2013 and Tesla has shipped over 150,000 of them to date at prices beginning at $71,500. Later this year, Tesla promises to begin shipping the $35,000 Model 3 this fall. The company is planning to build 500,000 units annually, and already has over 400,000 reservations secured with $1,000 deposits. Musk hopes to produce models even less expensive than the Model 3, announcing in April 2016 that “With fourth generation and smaller cars…we’ll ultimately be in a position where everyone can afford the car.” This is like Henry Ford’s vision for the Model T, so perhaps it’s appropriate that yesterday Tesla’s market capitalization passed that of the Ford Motor Company.

Not only has Tesla positioned itself as the first American auto maker to seriously challenge the big three EVER, but the popularity of its all-electric cars has created enough excitement in the industry that most manufacturers have rushed to offer their own (for example, VW e-Golf, the Chevy Spark and Bolt, the Fiat 500e, Ford Focus Electric, Nissan Leaf, and BMW i3) as well as an even wider range of “extended range” plug-in hybrid cars that sport electric drives as well as small gas engines. The point of all this, I think, is that although hybrid and all-electric cars qualify for generous tax rebates, that’s just icing on the cake. People want these cars because they rock.


I haven’t seen the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car” yet (it’s in my Netflix DVD queue), but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out that the story revolved way too much around government policy and industry lobbying to prevent the government from mandating cars like the GM EV-1 (California’s Air Resources Board had ruled in the early 1990s that all car companies selling in the state would need to make 2% of its fleet emission-free by 1998). Makes me wonder about the history of solar energy—was solar too wrapped up in the whole turn-down-the-thermostat-and-put-on-a-sweater, Jimmy Carter image of both defeatism and government intervention?

I have two thoughts about this: first, that it might make a good thesis for a historical study. Second, if that’s the case, what would it take to move solar from a Jimmy Carter place to an Elon Musk place? That’s what I’ll be thinking about, as I continue to study the subject (incidentally, I’m not at all convinced that Musk’s other company, Solar City, has cracked that code. But I’ll be looking closely at it to see).