Commoner's "Solar Solution" begins with his analysis of the energy crisis. We can no longer rely on "nonrenewable resources" - such as oil and coal - and must switch to a "renewable" resource - the sun. There are two compelling reasons - the scarcity of and the rising cost of nonrenewables, he says.
"Every time you take a barrel of oil out of the ground, there is one less left. For that reason, the cost for producing oil must go up. Take my Italian analogy. Suppose I give you a bowl of spaghetti and tell you there are no seconds. So now you have a 'nonrenewable' resource. And I ask you how much work you're going to have to do to get each forkful out of the bowl. The first forkful is easy, but by the time you get to the bottom of the bowl, you're scrabbling hard to get one forkful. And it is nonrenewable. That is exactly what happens to natural gas, oil, coal and uranium. As a nonrenewable energy source is depleted, the cost of producing it - and therefore its price - rises progressively faster.
"As the price of energy rises, it cannibalizes the very economic system that it is supposed to support. Our energy system is guaranteed to produce economic catastrophe." As long as we depend on nonrenewable resources, says Commoner, consumers face "endless escalation in energy prices."
Commoner's solution is to shift to a "solar transition" to lessen today's dependence on oil and gas. Commoner envisions a totally solar-run America in some distant Utopian future.
There is no one "solar panacea - no one solar process can efficiently produce energy in all parts of the country. In forested areas, solar energy can be produced as a solid fuel (wood); in agricultural areas, as a liquid fuel (alcohol made from grain) or a gaseous fuel (methane made from manure or plant residues)." In rainy, mountainous areas, solar energy can be produced as hydroelectric power; in areas of strong winds, windmills could generate electricity; in the desert, sunlight could be collected as heat.
In Minnesota, Commoner contends in "The Politics of Energy," the entire state's demand for energy could be met by "annually harvesting the catails that grow wild and using them to produce methane." And methane is "completely interchangeable with a present nonrenewable fuel - natural gas."
Commoner is very big on alcohol. "Gasoline comes in two flavors these days - with lead and without. The gasoline shortage is in unleaded" (which must be used in newer model cars equipped with catalytic converters to cut down pollution). The reason, says Commoner, is "because oil companies refused to build the refineries to make the octane boosters" needed for unleaded fuel.
"They could have added to existing refineries, secondary facilities to make octane boosters and they did not. In the next 10 years there will be more and more of a shortage of unleaded because they aren't making enough octane boosters. There is a way of producing octane boosters outside the oil industry. It is known as alcohol. You ferment corn, make alcohol, distill it, mix it with gasoline. It is an excellent octane-rich fuel." (As gasoline prices continue to rise, gasohol has become price-competitive, says Commoner.
Commoner paints a Rube Goldbergian flight of fancy: "You could work out a system to use crops first to make alcohol, then the residue is used to feed the livestock. And then the manure goes to make methane, which is another solar fuel, and the residue goes back on the soil as fertilizer."
Commoner says to one audience, "You may be asking, 'If it is so easy, why isn't it happening?' There are no technical barriers. Moonshining is a very old tradition. The reason we're in an energy crisis is not technical or economic, it's political." Carter "refused to consider" alternative methods of energy such as the larger scale production of gasohol, says Commoner, because it would upset the oil industry profit-making status quo.
"Think what it would be like, if in order to build all these 'stills' somebody had the wit to go to the Chrysler Corp. - which is growing broke - and say, 'By the way, would you mind making Model T versions of alcohol stills for the farmer? Is that going to hurt the people in Detroit? No!"
New small "cogenerators - 'gadgets' that will take natural gas to produce heat and electricity" could also be built in the United States in large numbers. "But do you know where those gadgets are being built now? In Italy! By Fiat. The first are being imported by Brooklyn Union Gas. Good lord - if the Italians can do it, why can't we?
"Solar - treated like a technological orphan by our federal governemt and major American industries - has become a technological Cinderalla elsewhere," says Commoner.
He points to Three Mile Island as an example of why nuclear energy must be "phase out." Commoner says, "We've done a study to show exactly how all nuclear power plants could close." The slack could be taken up, in part, by coal. But Commoner is asked, doesn't coal get us back to the same environmental bind as nuclear?
"Carter tells people you can't turn off nuclear without economic catastrophe. He's wrong." Coal as a transitory energy resource, says Commoner, is preferable to nuclear.
"In a sense," says Commoner, unless the solar solution is embraced "people are hostage."