Oklahoma, Where the Sun Shines Brightly in the Sky

May 6, 2014

The Republican governor of Oklahoma, Mary Fallin, has just signed a bill that forces homeowners to pay a fee for the right to remain connected to the local power grid if they have solar panels on their houses to generate electricity. The right-wing propaganda organization Americans For Prosperity, funded by the Koch brothers, have supported this effort by running television ads threatening utilities customers with drastic rate increases. It is also to be noted that the secretive American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), also funded by the Kochs, which aids conservative-dominated legislatures across the country in drafting these kinds of pro-dirty-energy initiatives, was deeply involved in writing the Oklahoma bill.

We seem to be seeing an increase in the severity of tornadoes in Oklahoma and elsewhere, as is predicted to occur with the climate change induced by fossil fuels. However, the data are difficult to interpret.

Nevertheless, you would think that Oklahoma would be one of the first states to seek alternate forms of energy. For one thing, it has plenty of sun and wind. Governor Fallin should be providing incentives for wind and solar, not discouraging them with special taxes.* Besides, I thought Republicans were against all kinds of taxes.

In the 1970s, when I was a professor in the physics department at the University of Hawaii (I retired from there in 2000 and moved to Colorado), I was working on a project at a State facility called the Natural Energy Laboratory, which is located on the oceanfront near the Kona airport West of the town of Kailua-Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii. At the time a number of alternate energy projects were being developed at this site, although I was not involved in any of them. One was called OTEC, Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion.

The idea was to use the temperature gradient between the cold water at the bottom of the ocean and the warm water at the top to generate electricity. A preliminary project called Mini-OTEC, located on a raft just offshore, had been declared a success. So the Department of Energy approved a more substantial test project. A large ship was fitted out to go to Kona and establish if ocean thermal energy conversion is a viable energy source.

I recall going down to the harbor in Honolulu to see the ship, which was about ready to sail to the Big Island. However, Ronald Reagan had just been elected president and one of his first acts was to cancel the OTEC project. I imagine he terminated a lot of other alternate energy projects at the same time. The ship never sailed for the Big Island.

In 2010 in an article titled “Where Did the Carter White House Solar Panels Go” Scientific American reported:

By 1986, the Reagan administration had gutted the research and development budgets for renewable energy at the then-fledgling U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) and eliminated tax breaks for the deployment of wind turbine and solar technologies–recommitting the nation to reliance on cheap but polluting fossil fuels, often from foreign suppliers. “The Department of Energy has a multibillion-dollar budget, in excess of $10 billion,” Reagan said during an election debate with Carter, justifying his opposition to the latter’s energy policies. “It hasn’t produced a quart of oil or a lump of coal or anything else in the line of energy.”

And in 1986 the Reagan administration quietly dismantled the White House solar panel installation while resurfacing the roof.

When Jimmy Carter was still president, there was considerable governmental support for research into alternative energy. We installed solar panels on our roof (as you might have guessed, Hawaii also has a lot of sun) to heat our water, taking benefit of a federal tax break. It was wonderful. We hardly ever had to use electricity to heat water– and we had two teenagers at the time. Within a few years, the investment had paid for itself.

I often visited the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in those days. The lab, with Department of Energy support, had initiated a major effort to study energy conservation. I remember in particular the designs for energy-efficient windows that blocked the sun’s rays from passing through to heat a room in the summer, and kept the interior heat from passing out in the winter. That was the 1970s. It has taken until recent years for this technology to be applied commercially. A few years ago, we installed energy-efficient windows in our house and the results have been remarkable, with substantial savings in our utility bills.

Unfortunately, we are still living with the legacy of Ronald Reagan. Rather than being “morning in America” it was evening and we are now approaching midnight. The current Republican Party, which is far more conservative than Reagan ever was, is doing everything in its power to prevent alternative energy sources from eating into the profits of the fossil fuel magnates who spend millions to keep right-wing politicians in office.

In the meantime, Hawaii remains a leader in alternative energy. They have good reason. Most of its electric power is generated by oil and Hawaii’s electricity costs are the highest in the country. Gasoline prices are also much higher there than on the mainland. When I was in Kona a few years ago, the price of a gallon of gas at the pump was twice what it was where I live in Colorado.

The Hawaii state legislature just provided $50 million, adding to an already approved $100 million bond issue, to help moderate- and low-income residents to install solar panels and energy-saving devices. Hawaii is already second behind Arizona, a much larger state, in solar power capacity.

When will voters in states like Oklahoma finally wake up and figure out what’s best for them rather than what’s best for the Robber Barons of the fossil fuel industry?


*Update: After this essay appeared, I was informed that Gov. Fallin has in fact taken positive action on wind and solar energy. In a press release from the Alliance for Solar Choice dated April 22, it was announced that Gov. Fallin has signed an executive order to promote the growth of distributed solar and wind in Oklahoma. The order also states that no tariffs or other increases for distributed generation customers are called for in current legislation.

On May 2, the Los Angeles Times reported that it was actually pressure from conservative-minded citizens objecting to the “worst thing in the world: a tax” that rejected the proposal to charge solar panels owners to connect to the grid. Still, I owe Gov. Fallin an apology.