On Poetry & Solar Energy
by Enoch Walker
When as children we are asked to write a poem, we get in touch with images that evoke feelings and try to recapture them using words. Later, when a poem is read out loud with passion and feeling, its words are etched into our memories by the power of the emotions they evoke.
The totality of who we are—mind, spirit and imagination—is engaged. If a poem resonates, it resonates at a gut level, to the extent it applies and relates to our lives. More unconscious than conscious, more intuitive than reasoned, more felt than considered, our response runs deep.
I got involved with solar energy research & development (R&D) through my training as an engineer. When I had responsibility for national and utility R&D programs in solar energy, part of the responsibility was to advocate for funding and congressional and corporate support. If we achieved our R&D goals, our energy utility companies would have a new and better way of doing their business. That was the basic business case.
It was necessary. But not sufficient. Its insufficiency led to the collapse of an enormously promising enterprise that began building solar power plants in California in the late 1980s.
Solar R&D programs were being funded for another, quite sufficient reason. A reason that resonated. At a gut level, people got it that naturally generated energy from inexhaustible sources would be more harmonious and less worrisome than energy sources associated with environmental degradation, death and destruction.
What people wanted mattered to governments and investor owned utility companies at the time. They funded energy R&D with an eye for public good will and the wishes of regulators. The business case really didn’t resonate. Later it was rendered irrelevant by changes in electricity market rules that favored fuel based electricity generation over capital intensive renewable generation.
This reality finally dawned on me somewhere in the late 1980s. I came to a conclusion that’s been routinely confirmed ever since. Still applies. It came to me at a time when the jury was still out on solar energy. It occurred to me that my company, a large and powerful utility, would never even decide to move forward with solar energy let alone actually do it.
I realized it would have to be people individually choosing solar that would propel solar forward. At the time solar resonated with people because they could imagine it as part of their lives, i.e., as an improvement. My company was a monopoly. It would get along just fine without improvements. Yes, of course it could imagine changes in its business environment and needing to navigate them, but it couldn’t imagine actually initiating or creating the changes.
People, on the other hand, continuously imagine what they would want to be different in their lives, what they are willing to try, what they are willing to do and decide, sometimes without even “crunching the numbers.”
Since then I’ve carried with me a preference for programs and initiatives that put solar close to people, preferably on the buildings they live and work in.
I didn’t even realize the full impact of this until it really started to happen. I sometimes wonder if so called utility-scale solar would ever have broken through if people-scale solar hadn’t gotten traction first, thus reinforcing the intuitive resonance I mentioned above.
I stay in touch with a crowd of passionate solar advocates who originally organized around a theme of moving solar to “scale." They have come to rejoice in the scale that projects, companies and industries have achieved over the decade since wind and solar markets reached “tipping points.”
I share their joy, principally because the dominant part of the solar industry is now large enough to propose, lobby and negotiate for favorable policies using its money and clout rather than having to rely on public sentiment to carry the day. For now anyway.
But for the future, I would have the industry take Kipling’s advice as it approaches maturity and “walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch.” In other words, solar advocates: don’t forget who brought you to the dance. It was everyday people who could imagine solar on their homes and in their communities, not so much the engineers like me who initially thought solar technologies and projects would need to scale up to fit the utility business models of the twentieth century.
It’s good that the scale up did happen. Nevertheless, the business models of the twenty-first century may continue to need to be shaped by what resonates with real people and real communities.
Returning to my initial poetry metaphor, Robert Frost’s life goal was to “write a few poems that would be hard to get rid of.” In our “modern” world, the only things hard to get rid of are things that live in the hearts and imaginations of people down through generations. Solar energy is now alive in this way. May it continue to be.
Enoch Walker serves as IRESN's director of Technical and Economic Integration. His knowledge of energy markets, electricity systems and clean energy supply technologies is rooted in his work over the years with leading firms and agencies such as Pacific Gas and Electric Company, Bechtel, Southern California Edison Company, BP Solar, Standard Solar, the US Department of Energy and the California Energy Commission. He organized and managed important and continuing US and California energy R&D programs and also held senior executive, marketing and business development roles in global and local solar companies. He is a member and recent chair of the Gas Technology Institute's Public Interest Advisory Committee. He holds a B.S. degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Michigan and graduate degrees in nuclear engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.