The Multinational Monitor


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Solar Energy: A Link Through the Ages

A Golden Thread: 2,500 Years of Solar
Architecture and Technology

by Ken Butti and John Perlin
Van Nostrand Reinhold,
289 pages U.S. $15.95.

How often do we hear that solar energy has a future - to listen to the sun's conventional fuel corporate adversaries, a future sometime perhaps in the 21st century? Well, this engrossing and almost artistic book demonstrates with text, pictures and sketches that' solar has a past longer than any fossil fuel technology.

Deliberate solar-sensitive construction began with ancient China, ancient Greece and ancient Persia. The Greeks consciously planned communities-and the Romans developed public baths and other buildings-with a southerly orientation and other passive solar architecture to take advantage of the , winter sun and to avoid much of the summer sun's uncomfortable heat. Over 2,000 years ago, an Italian coastal community engineered an elaborate form of air conditioning using Mediterranean sea breezes; native Americans used solar designs. Solar architecture, in fact, has been used on all continents.

The book's overall emphasis is on buildings, though the authors refer to giant sun mirrors, solar powered motors, collectors, pumps and other machines designed in recent centuries. Buildings are a major place to start today with solar sensitive architecture and active solar systems. Fully one-quarter of the world's present energy consumption goes to the heating, cooling and lighting of buildings and two-thirds of this energy comes from oil and natural gas. If the ancients had a variety of ways to use the sun for buildings why did not this massive lead time and learning curve lead to solarized buildings everywhere today?

The authors give us an incomplete response. They point out clearly that early societies used solar when their nearby wood supplies were depleted; when wood or fossil fuels were plentiful, interest in solar always dropped.

Always, it seemed, the harvesting or excavation and combustion of fuel was easier than collecting the sun's energy. Inventors, not explorers, were needed for the latter goal and ruling elites have generally not been kind to inventors or innovations that threatened l the products of already-satisfied merchants. o

The book does not cove. r other forms of solar energy, such as windpower or waste plant life and animal wastes - a gap that slims its evolutionary analysis. Also the book is thin on the past' ten years -a period of shortage in conventional fuels that has led to renewed'. interest in solar. In just the 1960s, 3.7 million solar water heaters were solid in Japan alone. This is a particularly lamentable gap since remarkable self-help and engineering advances have accelerated the fascinating cyclical rediscovery of lost solar knowledge.

Nevertheless, this, book is valuable for leaving readers with the lasting impression that practical solar architecture is old stuff rather than exotic stuff. This is an important lesson for people around the World. The sun is most accessible . in those heavily populated, poor areas of the Third World where conventional energy sources are scarce. These economies are being rapidly fitted into multinational corporate energy modes that. spell dependency, inflation and uncertainty.

Oil companies, coati exporters and nuclear ' reactor multinationals like General Electric and 'Westinghouse see these countries as their fastest growing markets. Large scale energy contracts-with their attendant`. commissions, emulation effects, and interlocks with local business officials -present a formidable barrier for solar development. After all; the sun is a free and abundant good, a good that can be used directly by people in local communities with local materials.

The problem with solar energy has been that its very nature poses a threat to multinational energy companies and their business allies. Any renewable that allows consumers and other users to gather it directly raises the political issue of reallocating both economic and political power away from centralized, profit (or surplus) seeking firms.

In the book's foreword, physicist Amory Lovins condemns the massive direct and indirect subsidies for nuclear electricity and synthetic fuels. He writes: "Though some presently available solar technologies-not all-are somewhat more expensive than the old oil and gas, almost all cost several times less than what we would otherwise have to pay to replace them with nuclear power stations or synthetic fuels. ..Solar technologies require days, weeks or months to build rather than a decade. They can be diffused rapidly into a vast consumer market rather than requiring tedious `technology delivery' to a narrow, specialized utility market ...The very diversity of these appropriate solar technologies enables a large number of slowly growing contributions to add up independently to a very rapid total growth."

And one might add that solar is safer for consumers and for the global environment. In short, it is an energy form for all consumer sovereignties - which can result in a basic power shift about which the multinationals are quite aware.

- by Ralph Nader

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