Fifty years ahead of his time

Marvin Baker
Local Columnist

A Mark Andrews newsletter from August 1975 surfaced here in my office and its contents are about solar energy being a bright hope for the future of the United States.

Andrews, who passed away on Oct. 3 of last year, was a Republican senator from North Dakota who represented us in Washington from 1981 to 1987 and was a candidate for governor in 1962. He was 94 when he died.

His newsletter is very forward thinking and lays out many of the challenges we’re having now.

Here’s a summary of what it said. Again, this is from August 1975.

“Forecasts of a depletion of our oil and gas reserves by the year 2000 have stimulated interest in alternative sources of energy – coal, nuclear generation, geothermal power and solar energy.

Because solar energy is a most important investment for the future, the House has voted to triple funding for its research, development and demonstration for fiscal year 1976. If the Senate concurs with this action, nearly $150 million will be available for this much needed research.

Too few people realize the effect an energy shortage has on our lives. For example, it takes the equivalent of 2 pounds of coal to produce a 1-pound loaf of bread and a half glass of diesel fuel for a glass of milk.

The economic, political and environmental costs of our dependence on fossil fuels are painfully obvious and they threaten to grow worse. They make clear the simple fact that our hunger for energy will eventually exhaust these resources.

Once effectively harnessed, solar energy could provide us with an almost inexhaustable source of energy.

Japan already has 2 million homes heated by solar energy collector panels. But scientists are just beginning to find ways to convert the sun’s energy into raw electricity to fuel our factories.

This nation’s solar energy research, which will be supervised by the Energy Research and Development Administration, is to be aimed at developing and demonstrating technologies to collect and convert solar energy into electricity to make possible initial energy contribution by 2000.”

You’ll notice that Mr. Andrews didn’t mention wind power in his newsletter, but yet his successor, Kent Conrad, was a strong proponent of wind energy. Today, there are numerous wind farms scattered across the state with a very minuscule amount of solar power being generated.

What changed? Why did we steer so far away from solar when Andrews touted it like he did? Perhaps research indicated there wasn’t enough light in North Dakota to make that happen.

In the sunbelt, there are countless solar farms just about in any direction you look. But not here. You’ll see some solar farms in central Minnesota, in the Sauk Centre area, but it also appears to be a “new” thing in Minnesota.

Was Senator Andrews 50 years ahead of his time, or was it nothing more than speculation that didn’t go anywhere, like the Edsel?

What Andrews did know back in 1975, was that fossil fuels will someday be depleted and eventually disappear.

The United States has about 40 years of oil in reserves that is available or easy to get at. What happens by 2060 if we don’t promote alternative energies? We may be in big trouble if we don’t.

As it turned out, oil companies were actually the ones who were promoting solar energy, because they understood that fossil fuels would become too expensive.

After the oil crisis of 1973, Shell, British Petroleum and Mobil invested heavily in solar research and by 1979, solar panels were installed on the roof of the White House.

That was just the beginning. With the help of greater funding for solar research, new varieties of silicon were developed, allowing for the widening of uses for solar energy.

Since 2000, photovoltaic solar panels have become affordable and practical for residential use, and are widely used in non-residential applications, too. Occasional government grants are available to have them installed.

The storage batteries have also become far more efficient than they were when Mark Andrews made his pitch.

Back then, batteries would remind you of Frankenstein’s lab, but now they are sleek, look good in any garage and store enough energy to power a house or farm for several days. The downside is the expense.

It’s a leap forward to go into solar, even though it took us 45 years to do so.

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