Big Oil Companies Like Exxon Helped Develop Solar Industry The multibillion-dollar solar photovoltaic industry has roots in an unexpected place. More than 40 years ago, oil companies invested in solar research and development that have proved critical.
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How Big Oil Of The Past Helped Launch The Solar Industry Of Today

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How Big Oil Of The Past Helped Launch The Solar Industry Of Today

How Big Oil Of The Past Helped Launch The Solar Industry Of Today

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Next time you spot a solar panel somewhere, consider this. Oil companies played a key role in launching solar technology - yeah, the very oil companies behind the fossil fuels that are rapidly warming our planet. NPR's Andrea Hsu has our story.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Let's begin in 1954, before Big Oil got involved, when a telephone company made big news.

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UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #1: Turning sunlight into electricity, scientists of the Bell Laboratories at Murray Hill, N.J., demonstrate a solar battery which converts light into power - a small amount, yes, but a big first for science.

HSU: The unveiling before reporters featured a tiny Ferris wheel running on solar power. By 1958, the technology was being sent into space. Vanguard 1, the first satellite equipped with a solar-powered transmitter, was launched from Cape Canaveral.

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ED HERLIHY: It's one of the most perfect flights ever seen at the missile center. And there's not a hitch along the way.

HSU: The success in space got people thinking, why aren't we using this more on land? Think about all the places in the world without electricity.

ELLIOT BERMAN: Here's the sun. Here are the people. All you got to do is figure out a way to put the two things together.

HSU: This is photochemist Elliot Berman. In 1968, 10 years after the Vanguard launch, he wrote up a plan for something he wanted to research.

BERMAN: How to make a solar panel that would be economic for Earth use.

HSU: See, making solar cells was really expensive. For the space program, cost was no issue. But for Earth use, Berman knew it would have to be a fraction of what it was then. He wanted to find a material that was cheaper than silicon, which was and still is the standard. When his company declined to fund the research, he went out on his own.

BERMAN: And I figured it would take me six months, maybe, to raise this money. It wasn't that much money.

HSU: But 18 months later, no luck until one day at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan, he pitched his idea to the venture people of Exxon, the oil company known as Esso back then.

BERMAN: Who, turned out, were interested.

HSU: Now let me bring in Lou Shrier, who worked for Exxon for 25 years.

LOUIS SHRIER: It was such an obvious thing, trying to make use of all this sunlight.

HSU: Shrier's original job was solving difficult engineering problems, like how to move oil across Alaska. But another problem was looming. U.S. demand for oil was up. A promotional film from the industry spoke of the oil supply as a matter of national security.

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UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #2: Faced with this responsibility, oil companies must continue to invest in the risky business of searching for oil.

HSU: Inside Exxon, Shrier says there was mounting concern about the countries behind OPEC.

SHRIER: What if these producers start jacking up the price and our market dries up? What can we do if we can't be in the oil business at all? Chief executives of Exxon Corp., the parent, as early as 1960, said, we've got to diversify.

HSU: So Exxon began looking into all kinds of side businesses - office machinery, information technology and nonconventional energy. That's where Lou Shrier landed. His first interest was biofuels.

SHRIER: But then I kind of became enamored of solar energy, hearing some of this vision of people like Elliot Berman and others. And I said, gee, you know, we ought to look at this not just as a research activity, but get into it commercially.

HSU: So Elliot Berman, the photochemist, set out to prove that solar could be a commercial success. It was the early '70s, and the world was his playground. How about a solar glove-warmer for skiers?

BERMAN: If I could put a solar panel on a backpack and use that to heat the gloves, wouldn't that be wonderful?

HSU: Now a bigger idea. Out in the Gulf of Mexico, Exxon's oil platforms had to have foghorns and flashing lights.

BERMAN: It was all being powered by batteries.

HSU: Solar would be much cheaper, Berman told them. He wanted to build a product right away, so he tried to buy solar cells from a space manufacturer.

BERMAN: I gave him a purchase order for $100,000. Remember; I was at Exxon. I could write big checks.

HSU: But his check was turned down. What was on offer were the solar cells that weren't good enough for space, and there weren't enough of them. Eventually, Berman's team resorted to making their own.

BERMAN: And so this was the product - five silicon wafers.

HSU: Made from slightly imperfect silicon, castoffs from the electronics industry. Now, as all this was happening, fears about the U.S. oil supply were deepening.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: From National Public Radio in Washington, ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

HSU: Let's go back to 1973.

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HERB HOLMES: The OPEC nations have decided to cut oil production by 5% and continue cutting the oil production...

HSU: The oil embargo sparked long lines at gas stations, where you could only fill your tank on even or odd days, depending on your license plate.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I don't know. This is my husband's car, and he only told me it was on even days. My car - I haven't even checked the license plate.

HSU: Richard Nixon called on Americans to lower their thermostats through the winter.

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RICHARD NIXON: Incidentally, my doctor tells me that in a temperature of 66 to 68 degrees, you're really more healthy than when it's 75 to 78, if that's any comfort.

HSU: And four years later, Jimmy Carter delivered this somber news to the nation.

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JIMMY CARTER: The oil and natural gas that we rely on for 75% of our energy are simply running out.

HSU: What wasn't running out was sunlight. And by now, the Exxon-funded Solar Power Corporation had established markets for its solar panels, powering everything from mountaintop telecommunication stations to water pumps in rural villages. And yet, there were questions about what the oil giant was really up to.

CHRIS EBERSPACHER: The oil companies were highly suspect in a lot of people's mind.

HSU: Chris Eberspacher was a research scientist for Arco Solar, owned by the oil company Atlantic Richfield, a competitor to Exxon starting in the late '70s.

EBERSPACHER: Of course, in the '60s, '70s and '80s, there were a number of oil spills. There was clear evidence of environmental spoliation. And so I think oil companies were seen with great skepticism.

HSU: And justifiably so, says Eberspacher. But inside Arco, he says the commitment to solar was real.

EBERSPACHER: Our clear marching orders were to change the world.

HSU: While Exxon had open markets for solar, Arco invested it in making the technology more efficient, more durable. Terry Jester, who joined Arco Solar as a senior in college, says that work proved crucial.

TERRY JESTER: That fundamental investment in materials and understanding how these things behave - because now people don't even talk about the reliability of solar panels - they're so reliable. But all that work was done in the early days.

HSU: Arco became the biggest solar manufacturer in the world, but solar had yet to turn a profit. Chris Eberspacher recalls how the chairman of the board would defend the spending. It went something like this.

EBERSPACHER: All the money that we've spent on solar so far is roughly equivalent to one dry hole.

HSU: Exploratory drilling that turned up nothing.

EBERSPACHER: And we don't intend to give up. We intend to drill this hole all the way to the bottom.

HSU: In the end, the oil companies did give up. The energy crisis of the '70s gave way to an oil surplus in the '80s.

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RONALD REAGAN: Large amounts of oil and natural gas lay beneath our land and off our shores untouched.

HSU: Ronald Reagan ended Jimmy Carter's solar subsidies, and Lou Shrier concluded it would take at least a decade before Exxon's solar business would be self-sustaining. So Exxon got out of solar. And by the end of the '80s, so had Arco. Left behind was a generation of innovators.

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UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #3: With SolPad, the power to positively affect humanity is power you can now hold in your hands.

HSU: Terry Jester now leads a startup that's launching a home solar system in Puerto Rico this fall. And Chris Eberspacher is working to combine new materials with silicon to make solar panels more efficient than ever before.

EBERSPACHER: I'm no fan of oil companies, but I have to be fair when thinking about who did what when.

HSU: They were early players, he says, who laid the foundation for solar.

EBERSPACHER: They were there. They made a difference. And that difference enabled an industry which is now changing the world.

HSU: A world under threat because of fossil fuels. Solar is now cheap - so cheap that last fall, Exxon Mobil signed a 12-year agreement to purchase solar and wind power for its growing operations in West Texas. Soon they'll be using the sun to produce more oil.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROOKED COLOURS AND LADYHAWKE SONG, "NEVER DANCE ALONE")

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