By Denise Tessier
Just before the winter holidays, the Albuquerque Journal ran a guest column about solar energy development that should have instilled in New Mexico readers pride in the state’s role in that history.
Instead, the reader was misled by the Journal to read the piece with an erroneous mind-set. That is, each enlightening paragraph in the essay (by Janet Bridgers, board member of the New Mexico Solar Energy Association) was shadowed by a lingering question:
When will the writer get to the part premised in the headline, “Renewable Energy Industry Has Lost Sight of Origins”?
Bridgers never did get to that part. Nowhere in the piece does the writer talk about the solar industry losing sight of its origins.
Instead, readers find Bridgers writing about solar technology’s successes:
Renewables are out there, big and small, simple and complex. They range from the astounding potential for a solar powered aircraft that can fly at night (presented on “60 Minutes” on Dec. 2), to the solar-powered security company sign in the neighbor’s yard.
Today, we have vast utility-scale concentrated solar plants in the deserts and micro-businesses in Third World countries where women buy and even build their own photovoltaic panels to recharge their neighbors’ cell phones.
She writes about the “scientists, architects, engineers and brilliant inventors in New Mexico” who“have played important roles,” including her late father, Frank:
In 1956, Frank Bridgers and Don Paxton designed the world’s first commercial solar building in Albuquerque. In 1958, Peter van Dresser completed the first solar heated house in New Mexico in Santa Fe.
In the ’70s, physicists from Los Alamos directed scientific studies to quantify passive solar — the heat gain and storage capacity of traditional adobe, concrete or stone combined with south-facing windows. Albuquerque’s Steve Baer continues to develop passive solar cooling and passive solar trackers. Santa Fe’s Ed Mazria, author of a classic textbook on passive solar, has launched Architecture 2030, an effective worldwide effort to direct architecture worldwide toward carbon-neutral buildings. Santa Fe architect Mark Chalom continues to meld beauty and function in passive solar homes.
She gives a nod to biofuels and geothermal technologies “rapidly advancing in Southern New Mexico” and then provides the “hook” for the timeliness of her column: On Dec. 9, the New Mexico Solar Energy Association celebrated its 40th anniversary, making it “one of the oldest nonprofits devoted to renewable energy education.”
From there she talks about the “origins” of solar technologies:
Bell Laboratories developed photovoltaics as a solar battery to power remote communication sites. Passive solar and solar thermal’s impetus was to find ways to save money on energy costs, and create independence from utilities. The need to reduce carbon emissions was not part of these original equations.
Linger on that last line: The need to reduce carbon emissions was not part of these original equations.
This is where the headline writer apparently lingered long enough to come up with a headline. In fact, the sub-head that ran under the misleading “Renewable Energy Industry Has Lost Sight of Origins” was “Carbon emissions, tax benefits not originally part of the equation.”
Forty years later, solar technologies now have the added potential of serving to offset climate change. The fact that carbon emissions were not a goal 40 years ago certainly doesn’t rise to the importance of serving as a sub-headline.
The same could be said about the “tax benefits” not originally being part of the equation, which for some reason also was raised to prominence by the sub-head.
In the essay, Bridgers mentions the “challenges” facing the solar industry — cheap natural gas, low labor costs in China – adding only this about tax credits:
While federal tax credits for renewable energy installations will continue for four more years, the gridlock in Congress makes their renewal less likely in the next two years … and with that, entrepreneurs’ ability to develop business plans based on them is problematic.
U.S. leadership in renewable energy technologies is evaporating. While Germany races forward in conversion to renewable energy, the U.S. hobbles along with energy policies that offer little hope of offsetting catastrophic effects of climate change or supporting the renewable energy companies that can benefit the country’s economy through job creation.
And Bridgers concludes with the current realities:
Even with energy efficiency, the low-hanging fruit for lowering energy costs and reducing carbon emissions, state and federal policies that could help the people who most need energy efficiency, i.e. those with low incomes, are uneven at best.
In a perfect world, renewable energy industries would not need incentives. But that’s wishful thinking at this point, and the fossil fuel industries have had, and continue to enjoy those benefits.
So, contrary to the Journal headline, the solar industry has not lost sight of its origins and, according to Bridgers’ final paragraph, well-supported by her essay, solar technologies still hold promise for even further application while enjoying worldwide success:
So this month, while we watch the factions in Congress with disgust and astonishment, we can take a moment to celebrate New Mexico’s achievements and urge our state Legislature to continue to support our renewable energy heritage and a growing economic development of these critical technologies.
While there’s nothing in the essay to support solar energy losing sight of its origins, the Journal did lose sight of the points of this essay and pulled a negative pronouncement about the industry from out of the blue. Again, the Journal has done its readers a disservice by mislabeling a column, allowing itself to appear (again) as if it wishes to discredit the industry Bridgers so capably summarizes.
By the way of disclosure, I know Bridgers personally and supported one of her recent projects. We have not discussed this column or its headline.