Cohen, Bernard L. The Solar Dream: The Nuclear Energy Option, Plenum, 1990

I first read about solar power when I was 14 years old. I was in the library and came across a book by an author named Van Nest Poole, called Our Energy Future. It was a time when people were starting to become interested in alternative energy sources. In fact, I distinctly remember feeling that I wasn’t supposed to read this book, because it was written for adults. I was fascinated, however, and couldn’t put it down. I finished the book in one day, and later that night I had to confess to my parents that I spent the day reading. As a child, I had been aware of the power of the sun and had even seen it rain, but I had never given much thought to how it might be harnessed to provide our energy needs. As I grew up, the subject came up often in conversation with friends and family, and eventually, I concluded that solar power was a realistic and viable option.

Inevitably, as with most new ideas and technologies, there were many people who were skeptical about the viability of solar power. They pointed to the vast amount of solar radiation as well as to the high price of photovoltaic cells and solar panels as reasons to doubt that solar electricity would ever be a practical alternative to traditional energy sources. Many of these people lived in the state of New York, where, in 1987, I worked as an energy consultant. At that time, the cost of a solar panel installed in your home averaged about $15,000. The cost of electricity from a traditional power source was about eight cents per kilowatt hour. Thus, it was clear to me that unless some innovative approach was found, the price of solar electricity would have to go up before it was competitive with traditional energy sources.

The situation was further complicated by my firm’s work with the nuclear industry. At that time, people were very much afraid of nuclear power, and the issue of whether or not to build new reactors was very much up in the air. The industry, which had been declining for years, was hoping for a revival, and government policy makers were looking for ways to encourage new construction. In addition, our work with the electric power industry made me acutely aware of the interdependency of the various energy sources – the need for sufficient infrastructure to support the addition of more generation capacity, coupled with the need to reduce conventional energy use, in particular, the large amount of energy consumed by air-conditioning units in the summer. Together, these issues added an additional layer of complexity to the already thorny question of whether or not to invest in solar power.

I had been a contributor to the debate, but I had, until that point, been somewhat marginalized. Now that I was working for a company that stood to benefit financially from my recommendations, I decided that I would have to become more active in the solar power movement. I began by doing more research into the industry and following the industry as it developed. This was how I learned about the work of a man named Ronald A. Coombs, who had founded the National Committee for Independent Research (NCIR) and who had, with the help of a grant from the United States Department of Energy (DOE), begun what was, at the time, the world’s largest research project on the subject of distributed generation. As it turned out, NCIR was in the process of organizing a series of conferences to examine the potential of solar power and to try to answer some of the questions that had been raised. These conferences would be the beginning of an extremely productive period for me.

A Distributed Generation Conference

The first such conference was held in the fall of 1989, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was put on by a group of scientists and engineers who had been working on the problem of energy and environmental security for years. They were, by and large, people who subscribed to the anti-nuclear and anti-carbon-dioxide-emissions position held by many in the environmentalist movement. Many had been active in what was known as the “greening” of the nuclear industry, and now they were looking for answers as to how they might bring that technology into their own homes. What they found was a very bright and proactive young man by the name of Richard Yate, who would eventually found Earth Energy Labs Incorporated, and who is now Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Earth Energy Alliance.

Yate’s presentation, which was entitled “Distributed Generation: A Green Technology for the New Millennium,” laid out the basics of solar power and described the various ways in which it was being used successfully around the world. As I listened to Yate describe the technology and its potential, I began to see the value in installing solar panels in my home. As Yate pointed out, it wasn’t enough for me to know that the sun shone every day. I had to consider where that energy would come from, how I would produce it, and whether or not I wanted it at all. These were all questions that needed to be answered before I could make a decision. His presentation was extremely well-received and seemed to put an end to the debate, once and for all. It was a very practical and down-to-earth discussion of a potentially far-reaching subject.

A Second-Generation Solar Conference

A year later, in the fall of 1990, I was asked to speak at a conference on solar power in Phoenix, Arizona. This time, I met some truly amazing, talented individuals who were determined to make a difference. In particular, I had the opportunity to meet and to speak with Van Nest Poole, the author of Our Energy Future, who was then the Director of the Arizona Solar Energy Program. I was particularly excited to meet Van Nest, because he had been one of the main people responsible for putting me on the path to understanding the potential of solar power. This was a truly great conference, with some of the world’s best engineers, scientists, and economists discussing various aspects of solar power and how it might be implemented. It wouldn’t be the last time that I would be asked to join a panel discussion at a conference on solar power. The subject was becoming increasingly complex, and there were many different viewpoints being presented. It was clear to me that this was a problem that would not be easily solved. Nevertheless, it was an extremely interesting time for the solar power movement, and it seemed to be attracting some pretty amazing people who were committed to making a difference.

A Third-Generation Solar Conference

In the spring of 1992, I was again asked to give a presentation on solar power at a conference in San Francisco. On this occasion, I had the good fortune to meet a man named Steve Burke, who is now the Director of the California Solar Energy Management Board. He is also the man who first brought me into the solar power movement and who, along with his team, had helped to found the California Solar Energy Industries Association (CSEI), of which I am now also a member. Of all the people I have known in the solar power movement, Steve is, without question, the most passionate and dynamic.

Now that I was a member of CSEI, I began to see the association as a key player in the evolving solar power industry and as a vehicle through which I might further my own interests in the subject. It wasn’t long before I was asked to co-chair CSEI’s third-generation solar conference with Steve. Once again, it was a great opportunity to learn more about the technology and its applications. However, this time around, I was determined to make sure that my experience was as informative and beneficial to the attendees as possible. I wanted to ensure that they walked away with the right information and equipped with the confidence to tackle the complex issues that would arise as the solar power industry grew and changed over the coming years.

Graphene: An Opportunity To Revolutionize Solar Power

A couple of years later, in the spring of 1995, I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Steve Chu, who was then the Director of ARPA, the United States government’s research and development arm. Among other things, we discussed the potential of nanotechnology and of using graphene, a substance that exists on the atomic scale and that is one-atom-thick, for storing and generating electricity using solar power. At the time, graphene was, for the most part, only available in laboratory settings, but, given its revolutionary properties, I thought it might be a viable option for storing energy. I still believe this to be true, and I continue to follow developments in the field, as this is one application of solar power that seems as viable today as it was 20 years ago.

Scroll to Top