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Profile: Denis Hayes
Denis Hayes was a participant or observer in the following events:
Denis Hayes, the chairman of the Earth Day Network and the head of the Bullitt Foundation, writes of how the US government could encourage the expansion of solar power as a means to combat global warming. The federal government could sink significant funds into buying “wind turbines, biofuels, fuel cells, hydrogen, hypercars, and other elements of a solar future,” he writes. Doing so “will accelerate the speed at which such products become affordable for the rest of us. We typically think in terms of federal procurement, but state and local governments can play an important role too.” The most obvious candidate for federal purchasing is solar cells, Hayes writes. “Lowering the cost of solar cells would provide extraordinary public benefits. Solar cells make electricity, but they consume no fuel, produce no pollution, generate no radioactive waste, have long lifetimes, contain no moving parts, and require little maintenance. They can be fashioned mostly from silicon, which is the second most abundant element in the Earth’s crust. Solar cells produce zero carbon dioxide, the chief greenhouse gas. Unfortunately, solar cells are not yet cheap enough to compete with heavily subsidized fossil fuels. Although the price of solar cells already has fallen about 40-fold, this technology remains roughly three times too expensive to achieve skyrocketing growth as a power source in the United States. For a quarter-century, affordable solar cells have been the environmental brass ring, lying just outside the grasp of those who favor green power. Governmental procurement could lower their price to the point where they will take off on their own in the private sector. A comparison of the experiences of computer chips and solar cells vividly illustrates the value of government procurement in bringing new products to market.” If the government were to invest in the production of solar cells, their production price would drop precipitously as mass-production procedures would be instituted. Hayes gives the example of the integrated circuit, which was viewed as an expensive oddity until the Defense Department began buying it in bulk. The price of the circuits dropped dramatically, and private market opportunities began presenting themselves. Hayes notes, “In just six years, the price of integrated circuits plummeted 95 percent and an enormous commercial market developed.” A similar cost-production curve was followed by CPUs, which at first were too expensive to use, but when Intel and other firms achieved the ability to make them in bulk, their price dropped. As a result, integrated circuits and CPUs drove the information revolution. The same could happen with solar cells, Hayes argues. Hayes concludes that if the government sinks a significant amount of money into buying solar cells—he suggests $5 billion over the next four years—“the impact on the world will be revolutionary.” [Grist Magazine, 5/8/2000]
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