No one will ever accuse Daniel Berman and John O'Connor of being mainstream in their book, "Who Owns the Sun? People, Politics, and the Struggle for a Solar Economy." It is a hard hitting polemic on the disastrous failure of the United States to harness its solar energy. Many will find Berman and O'Connor's book controversial. All will certainly find it provocative. In the grand muckraking tradition of Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle," Berman and O'Connor call for nothing less than a consumer rebellion, urging Americans to take control of their energy supply.
Both books employ forewords by heavy hitters to lend weight to their discourse: Asmus enlisted energy efficiency guru Amory Lovins, Berman drafted consumer advocate Ralph Nader. Lovins praises SMUD's energy efficiency programme and its pioneering use of photovoltaics. Nader, who started his career by tilting at General Motors, hopes "Who Owns the Sun?" "can reactivate the solar movement in America."
For those unfamiliar with the development of electric utilities in the US, Asmus sets the stage for today's debate on restructuring by succinctly reviewing the growth of electric monopolies in the 1920s. He then quickly switches to a topic that has long interested anti-nuclear activists, SMUD's struggle to close its Rancho Seco nuclear reactor. Asmus is at his best when describing the back room shenanigans of the nuclear industry and its fellow travellers in their ultimately futile effort to subvert a public referendum and keep the "Ranch" open.
"Reinventing Electric Utilities" explains the tortuous process California has taken towards deregulation, beginning with the Public Utility Commission's costly Biennial Resource Plan Update process. Asmus then guides the reader through a mind numbing maze of political, financial, and environmental interests and their manoeuvres to steer deregulation in their favour. The result is what has been termed the largest bailout in US history. In 1998 alone, Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison will receive $500 million in above market rates for their nuclear reactors, say the authors.
While Asmus and Smeloff don't shrink from calling California's deregulation plan flawed because "it camouflages the failure of nuclear power," their sober, workmanlike tone won't offend anyone.
Not so with Berman and O'Connor. Berman is an old rabble-rouser, starting as a "freedom rider" in the deep South during the 1960s Civil Rights movement and O'Connor is an anti-toxic chemical campaigner. Both still have fire in their bellies. Solar energy is not in common everyday use in the US because of low energy prices, bureaucratic incompetence, and general public policy neglect, say Berman and O'Connor. They heap blame on multi-national energy companies, electric utilities, Congress, and the Department of Energy. But Berman and O'Connor hold environmental groups, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, accountable as well. "For mainstream environmental groups, confrontation is out and Green Capitalism is in . . . . [while] The use of fossil fuels continues to rise inexorably and drive solar even farther into the future. An alternative political movement based on solar energy has been reduced to begging the utilities for a share of the business."
Green pricing disparaged
"Who Owns the Sun?" takes a dim view of Green Capitalism in general and green pricing in particular. "For solar advocates left penniless by the vagaries of energy policy, green pricing became the new holy grail." The authors plead for greater public participation in energy decision making and single out the co-operative development of wind energy in Denmark as a model of how citizens can reclaim their right to the sun. Berman and O'Connor note with awe that in Denmark, where there is a true grassroots movement, "incentives work in favour of the wind turbine owner rather than the electric utility." In contrast, they continue, wind power in the United States "has been a boom-and-bust affair that never created a grassroots constituency, outside a restricted circle of wind energy enthusiasts and financiers."
Berman and O'Connor's fiery style is intended to rekindle flagging American interest in solar energy and in the process build a more just society. Their exposé of Southern California Edison's subterfuge and double dealing on its proposed coal fired plant in Mexico is classic muckraking at its best.
Who Owns the Sun? People, Politics, and the Struggle for a Solar Economy by Daniel Berman & Jon O'Connor, 1996, $24.95, ISBN 0-930031-86-5, Chelsea Green Publishing Co. Reinventing Electric Utilities: Competition, Citizen Action, and Clean Power, by Ed Smeloff and Peter Asmus, 1997, $16.95, ISBN 1-55963-455-3, Island Press.