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In Search of the Sun


By Joseph B. White

Six years ago, the oil producing countries of the world discovered that they could control the world economy by raising the price of the one commodity they had that the Western nations needed.

Six years ago, America should have gotten the message. Perhaps the idea of bernoose-clad desert dwellers putting a hitch in the Amercan Way of Life was too much for people to absorb. Maybe they believed that the energy crisis was a fiction, created by the greedy oil companies. Whatever people thought then, the country now finds itself stuck with the reality of soaring energy costs, dwindling fossil fuel supplies and no coherent approach to bailing the situation out.

The Carter administration has relied largely on jaw-boning and voluntary programs to encourage energy conservation, and not surprisingly fossil fuel consumption has not decreased. The U.S. economy may not rely as heavily on imported oil as Europe's but it still shudders with every OPEC price increase. The January balance of payments report shows the country $3.1 billion in the red, and foreign oil has a lot to do with that unsettling gap. With the recent decision by OPEC member nations to raise prices 9.5 per cent, exclusive of surcharges by individual nations, the outlook is gloomy.

What makes things gloomier still for the Energy establishment--government agencies and private power and oil companies--is the realization that some old panaceas aren't going to save the day, after all.

On Mar. 28, 1979, safety systems of the Three Mile Island nuclear generating plant malfunctioned resulting in the country's worst civilian nuclear accident. Radiation leaked into the surrounding area and for several days a core meltdown seemed imminent. Besides being a confirmation of the worst fears of nuclear power's foes, Three Mile Island may also mark the end of nuclear power as The Alternative to coal and oil. Though it seems unlikely that a federal ban on nuclear power plants will come out of any subsequent investigations, local governments and citizens' groups will have a lot of ammunition to use against power companies that propose construction of new nuclear plants. Power companies will find it a great deal harder now to convince people that "Nukes are good neighbors" now that one of those "good neighbors" has leaked radiation into the air.

What is most frightening to note in the aftermath of the whole Three Mile Island affair, however, is the relatively unshaken faith in nuclear power among power company officials and government energy policy makers like Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger '50. Commitment to nuclear energy and trust in the safety of its technology runs deep and strong among these people, despite the increasingly ominous warnings that the technology is not as safe as they think. One wonders why--in the face of protests, near catastrophes, indisposable nuclear waste, and the increasingly unrewarding economics of building nuclear plants--the energy establishment hasn't taken more interest in other energy sources such as the sun and the wind.

The answer lies in the structure of energy production in this country, which is based on large power companies and huge generating plants in central locations. Power production is a very big-time, high-technology game, and a lot of big money flows into the power company coffers as a result of the oligopolistic concentration of capital in the power industry. Given that the fossil fuel honeymoon is just about over, the big power companies know they must find another way. But because of their orientation, they concentrate their search for alternatives on energy sources that will produce massive amounts of power in the centralized, technology-intensive, meterable mold already established. Ergo, the commitment to nuclear technology.

Admittedly, solar technology hasn't developed to the point where huge solar funaces can be used to provide electricity for a large city. The same is true for wind power, but individual buildings can be heated and electrified by the kinds of solar and wind installation operating now in small numbers from New York to Los Angeles. However, one suspects that the thought of a country full of buildings with their own windmills and solar panels--creating electricity that the electric companies cannot meter--receives a very cool reception in company boardrooms. People who actually have installed such devices have been hassled by power companies for allegedly disrupting the company's systems with the extra electric current they generate. Talk about solar power is usually kept in the future tense, and actual application has not received the support that even farmers leaving fields bare could command.

It would be naive to assume that if solar and wind energy systems were installed on the rooftops of the land the energy crunch would magically go away. But assuming that nuclear plants will solve the problem is just as naive, and perhaps disastrously so. If a comprehensive government program to encourage installment of solar heating devices--along the lines of the home insulation tax rebate--were to result in only a 5 per cent decrease in the overall demand for oil it would be well worth the effort since U.S. oil supplies are currently only 2.5 per cent below demand, according to government estimates. The benefits of such a program would seem to outweigh the costs.

The Carter administration, however, appears unready to embark on a program to seriously promote solar and wind power and whiles away its energy policy hours concocting elaborate plans to lift the controls that regulate domestic oil prices. Raising prices, the administration maintains, will stimulate domestic production and discourage consumers from wasting oil. Ideally, the oil companies will use the extra revenue for the expanded exploration they talk so much about and the government will tax away windfall profits. In fact, the rise in oil prices after deregulation--which may be as much as seven cents per gallon of gas--coupled with the OPEC increases will subject lower and middle income Americans to further debilitating inflation.

At some point, the U.S. must confront the profligacy of its energy consumption, and deal with it directly. Economic tinkering harms more than it helps, especially when inflation already runs towards double digits annually. Plans to give the oil companies more money and power companies more nuclear plants seem to promise a perpetuation of a system that has a high price tag and a limited life expectancy.

Eventually, sweeping structural and attitudinal changes in the country's approach to energy production will have to be made as oil becomes less available at any price. But such changes need to be begun while the old system can still operate, not after it has collapsed or become prohibitively costly. In order to buy time while energy sources that don't involve radiation poisoning or incredible pollution are developed, serious conservation measures must be undertaken.

Besides encouraging the use of present solar and wind technology to its fullest extent, some kind of mandatory fuel-gas-oil allocaion should substitute for price increases to hold down demand. The administration now approaches the idea of allocation-rationing very warily, insisting that it is only a last resort. This is roughly analogous to rationing water in a desert when there's only a few drops left in the canteen. The time for rationing is earlier on, before the supplies are gone. If an equitable, and not necessarily severe, program of rationing coupled with price controls were instituted it would achieve conservation without drastic inflationary effects. Rationing would spread the burden more evenly over all segments of society. Price increases put the load, as usual, on those least able to bear it. As for adverse political consequences, dollar a gallon gas isn't liable to win many votes, either.

What is needed right now Jimmy Carter's administration has failed to supply: an energy policy that is both effective and fair.

One can only hope the events at Three Mile Island will lead those who form energy policy to become more receptive to intermediate conservation measures, and less bound to an approach that promises results only at high human and economic costs.

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