Articles

How Big Oil had controlled the solar industry

by Tracy Emblem

During the past year, we faced the worst environmental oil spill in U.S. history ---- 4.9 million barrels of oil and 1.84 million gallons of dispersants inundated the waters off the Gulf Coast.

America could have been steadily weaned off of its oil addiction instead of drilling in deep waters. In 1974, Congress enacted the Solar Energy Research Development and Demonstration Act to stem the nation's dependence on oil. In the following years, $6 billion was spent to improve photovoltaic production levels, reduce production costs and stimulate private sector purchases.

So what happened to deter progress?

Big Oil bought and controlled the research and development of America's photovoltaic industry. Big Oil's main business is and has always been oil, gas, coal and petrochemical profits first. As a result, the private sector stimulated was actually mergers and buyouts of smaller independent photovoltaic research and development companies by Big Oil.

The plan was simple. Control the solar industry's research and patents ---- if you control the patents ---- you control the development and market of a product.

Here's the time line:

-- In 1973, Karl Boer formed Solar Energy Systems to market photovoltaic cells. He then transferred the majority of his stock to Shell Oil Co.

-- Around 1974, Mobil Oil, in a joint venture with Tyco Laboratories, created Mobil-Tyco Solar Energy Corp.

-- In 1975, Exxon assumed Solar Power Corp. as its wholly owned subsidiary.

-- In 1977, Atlantic Richfield Co. invested in a photovoltaic company in Camarillo and began manufacturing solar cells and panels.

-- In 1980, ARCO Solar was the first company to produce more than 1 megawatt (1,000 kilowatts) of photovoltaic modules in one year. That same year, British Petroleum entered the solar market when it bought out Lucas Energy Systems.

-- In 1982, ARCO Solar completed the first megawatt-scale photovoltaic power station, in Hisperia.

-- In 1983, ARCO Solar dedicated a 6-megawatt photovoltaic substation in central California.

-- Around 1983, AMOCO Solar Co., a subsidiary of American Oil Co. acquired the Solarex factory in Frederick, Md.

-- In 1986, ARCO Solar built the first utility-scale photovoltaic generating facility in Texas and also introduced the first commercial thin film photovoltaic module.

-- Then in 1987, Solarex, AMOCO's subsidiary, sued ARCO Solar for patent violations, effectively halting ARCO Solar's photovoltaic business.

-- In 1993, Solarex sued United Solar, a joint venture of Energy Conversion Devices and Canon of Japan, for patent infringement practices. During the same year, Mobil Oil closed its 19-year solar demonstration plant in Billerica, Mass. The New York Times reported that Mobil stated that although it had developed more efficient, less expensive solar cells, "the electric utility industry market for solar energy is small and is unlikely to grow to large-scale demand in the near term."

-- In 1995, Solarex changed its name when Enron Corp. of Houston and AMOCO/Solarex entered into a joint venture and merged into Amoco/Enron Solar, each corporate partner owning 50 percent interest in the photovoltaic company.

-- In 1998, in the world's largest industrial merger, AMOCO merged with BP. In 1999, BP AMOCO purchased Enron's 50 percent share and created BP Solarex, and in 2000, BP acquired ARCO, now known as BP West Coast Products LLC.

-- In 2007, Shell dumped many of its solar projects.

-- In March 2010, BP announced the closing of its Frederick, Md., manufacturing plant. BP has been closing down its solar panel factories in different countries.

For years, Big Oil controlled much of the photovoltaic technology patents, research and development while pushing oil on consumers and contending publicly that solar technology was not market ready and too expensive.

Consequently, the drilling continues today with tens of billions in tax breaks and a royalty waiver program established by Congress in 1995 for offshore drilling in deep waters.

During the same time, Big Oil joined the Global Climate Coalition, an industry effort to debunk the growing scientific evidence of global warming caused by too much oil consumption.

Big Oil has no incentive to replace fossil fuel; whether it is with inexpensive photovoltaic technology or clean algae bio-fuel, it would render Big Oil's already-owned mineral rights worthless.

Almost four decades later, America continues to be dependent on Big Oil's control of the environment and global economy. As a recent television commercial suggested about our nation's failure to wean off Big Oil, if not now, when?

Germany, with a population of nearly 82 million, has already shown that renewable energy is dependable.

California can follow with renewable energy policies that could provide for long-term stability and fixed energy costs. Because each state regulates its own energy costs, investing in renewable energy in state and local partnerships will decrease our reliance on imported energy in the future and will provide for greater economic security for us all.

Tracy Emblem is a lawyer in Escondido. The views expressed are her own. Comment online at nctimes.com.

http://www.nctimes.com/news/opinion/perspective/article_3fa5e38e-ac68-5b80-9d6d-8ab272027f6c.html

Category: Economy