Officially he was a Chicago fireman, but on his days off he would go out to our garage, load the trunk of a weary Nash sedan with tools and become . . . a moonlight plumber. In the summertime, I would help him, cramming heavy crates of cast-iron fittings onto the car's sagging rear seat, and strapping lengths of galvanized pipe to its roof. I can recall being concerned about the incredible weight of our cargo, as the Nash, its springs groaning for mercy, navigated the deep ruts in that muddy alley. My father, I should explain, did not favor the new, lightweight polyvinyl pipe and copper tubing that were then revolutionizing the plumbing trade.
Not that he preferred getting coated from head to foot with cutting oil and tiny metal filings from the clumsy threading dies we continued to use. It was just that this new approach to plubming -- this no-muss, no-fuss gluing of pipes together -- was so strange, so unknown. It was something we'd have to try someday, he'd say. And he kept saying it, in fact, right up until our little moonlit business went under, the victim of a new technology.
I'm put in mind of this almost everytime i hear Jimmy Carter explain his energy program. We're going to go on producing as much U.S. petroleum as possible, he says, even if we have to tear up what's left of the landscape and squeeze the fossil energy out of every rock and lump of coal in America. And, least it employs the familiar old tools of Big Oil with which the administration apparently feels so comfortable. But what about solar power, the source that a current Harvard Business School study saw as the most promising energy answer? Well, Carter talks about it plenty, but it's really the administration's version of Dad's newfangled copper plumbing -- a swell idea, but something for the indefinite future.
In practice, Carter has ignored the mounting evidence that solar energy, even in its most sophisticated applications, could provide a practical (if partial) short-term solution. Consider, for example, the 1978 Department of Energy study of solar equipment to transform sunlight directly into electricity. Given a $440 million Pentagon purchase order, the report concluded, the embryonic U.S. solar industry could begin to produce these "photovoltaic" devices on such a scale as to make them competitive with fossil fuel within five years . The idea was to use these solar cells at remote radar bases and thereby expand the demand sufficiently to bring about cost-cutting, factory-efficient production methods. The Defense Department had used exactly this approach in driving down the cost of other semiconductor materials -- the microchips now used in inexpensive hand calculators -- from about $200 per unit to less than 20 cents each. While nominally solar advocates, Carter and his energy secretary shelved these findings.
Congress, however, went on to provide 20 percent of the funding recommended in the photovoltaic study; and the first solar radar base was opened two weeks ago. Included in The Washington Post account of this event was the note that solar costs have already tumbled from $30 per watt in 1975 to $8 per watt today. At 50 cents per watt, solar would be competitive with other sources of residential electricity. And the industry is moving toward the goal "faster than anyone had previously thought," according to the House committee that last year tacked an additional $50 million on to the administration's meager $75 million request for solar research. Hardly a short-term panacea, photovoltaic power is more a type of sleeper -- something that could suddently become an important element in a larger energy plan.
There are several reasons for such optimism, not the least of which is the work being done in the area of amorphous silicone semiconductors. Amorphous materials -- like glass, for example, whose molecules are distributed at random -- are infinitely cheaper to produce than the neatly ordered and painstakingly grown crystalline materials that have thus far been used in solar cells. According to MIT researcher David Adler, who testified at the solar-research hearings, the major breakthroughs have been made and it is more a matter of development now.
This development would cost lots of money, of course -- hundreds of millions. But, then, the president was talking about $88 billion, as he floated along the Mississippi recently, plugging such things as $50-per-barrel shale oil. It was a trip rich in irony: the "outsider" president railing against the slickers back in Washington, while pushing a Cutler-Ignatius-Zuckert synfuels package that was reportedly slapped together by these downtown types over lunch one afternoon; or earnest Carter, sweating under a bountiful Midwest sun, declaring we're going to have to dig deeper for energy.
I watched it all on television, watched it while we were back in Chicago, in fact, visiting my parents, and we discussed it. Yes, my father agreed, the Carter campaign steamboat was beginning to resembe that creaky old Nash, the carrier of the outdated tools and equipment. It was, in any case, hardly the vehicle to haul anyone through a rough election.