While the European Union, China and most developing countries have called on the US to cut C02 emissions to 15 percent below 1990 levels by 2010, President Clinton now hopes to simply match 1990 levels sometime between 2008 and 2012 four years after the next presidents second term.
During the remaining years of Clintons term, no other action would have a greater impact on cooling the impacts of global warming than a serious federal program to reduce the cost of solar cells.
Solar cells are an astonishingly attractive way to make electricity. They consume no fuel, produce no pollution or radioactive waste, have long lifetimes, contain no moving parts, require little maintenance and can be fashioned from silicon the second most abundant element on Earth. Solar cells produce no greenhouse-warming carbon dioxide. Moreover, polls routinely report that most Americans would prefer to get their energy from the sun.
Unfortunately, solar cells are not yet cost-effective for widespread use in the US or any other industrialized country. While the price of solar cells has fallen about 40-fold, the technology still remains about three times too expensive to permit solar electricity to become a leading power source in the US. Fortunately, this is a problem we know how to solve.
In the 1960s, computer chips (which are made of the same semiconductor materials as solar cells) were far too expensive for use by the general public. Massive government purchases by the Defense Department and NASA quickly led to design innovations and efficient mass production. As prices fell, a large commercial market was created. Volume shot up while prices continued to fall.
If the government had not purchased huge quantities of computer chips before they were cheap enough for commercial applications, the technology might have never become cost-effective and the information revolution would have been delayed, perhaps indefinitely. Today, millions of people have more computational power sitting on their desks than NASA had available for the entire Apollo space program in the 1960s. The same strategy could work for solar cells.
Recent history confirms that every time the volume of solar cells has increased, the cost has fallen. A market for solar power already exists. People are just waiting for the price of photovoltaic cells to drop.
A federal program to spend $8 billion over the next four years could make solar cells commercially viable for a significant portion of new electrical applications worldwide. A commitment from the US government to buy $1 billion worth of solar cells in 1998 at a price of $4/watt, $1 billion worth in 1999 at $3/watt, $1 billion worth in 2000 at $2/watt, and $2 billion worth in 2001 at $1.50/watt would be an imaginative, forceful and effective program worthy of a presidential legacy.
When large-scale purchases lower the price of a product, the change is permanent. Unlike a presidents promises about taxes or tax credits, economies of mass production cannot be repealed. Part of the beauty of this computer chip strategy is that, after a few years, no additional government subsidy would be required.
If no company steps forward to sell solar cells to the government at the proposed prices, the program will not a cost a cent. However, if some companies are able and willing to meet the challenge, the impact on the world will be revolutionary.
Denis Hayes was the director of the Solar Research Institute under President Jimmy Carter and was one of the chief organizers of the first Earth Day in 1970. He now serves as president of the Bullitt Foundation in Seattle, Washington.