Observer interview: By Dan Noyes Anaheim, California Jim Piper has a solution to the energy crisis. Solar power, Now. As inventor of a unique solar-hydronic heating system that’s practical, inexpensive and effective, he thinks he knows what he’s talking about. Yet, he says, serious development of energy from the sun is being largely ignored because it holds no promise of giant profits for the nation’s utility companies. Will this ever change? The Observer decided to talk with Piper about his thoughts on the question. Here are some excerpts: OBSERVER: Your company, PiperHydro, developed a successful space heating and hot water system that conserved energy before you got involved with solar energy, but you conserve even more with solar. . .. So why aren’t we entering the solar age right now? PIPER: If you go back to 1974, you will probably find that your attitude toward solar energy was different then. What you believed could be done was different then. But the the people who know about energy didn’t have a different attitude then. They were setting their story and their public relations campaigns. They were, in my opinion, getting ready to use the government’s research and development money and programs to their best benefit . . . to tell the American public that solar is a future technology and it costs too much money. And that’s a damn lie. OBSERVER: But they have a bigger soap box, right? PIPER: Well, they’re well-prepared and well-financed. Essentially, I think Piper-Hydro’s competitors are on a little piece of paper I keep hanging on the wall. OBSERVER: How many are on there? PIPER: Seven. The first is Exxon, the largest corporation in the world. The smallest is Gulf, the 12th largest in the world. That is a list of the seven sisters–[the world’s seven major oil companies] … To a certain extent, they are the economy of the world. Energy is the economy of the world. . . . What definitely has occurred is that we now have an economy based upon the ever-increasing sale of fossil fuel energy at higher prices. But . . . it has become an economy of waste. If you are in the business of selling more at a higher price, you certainly are not going to encourage any technology that uses less, because your profits are based upon more, not less . . . Those companies recognize that we have a finite amount [of .fossil fuels]. They can see the end. But they are trapped. . . . The way [for them to survive] is to sell more at a higher price. Along comes [something] different like solar energy. Look, the technology is there to get along with a very little amount of energy. It doesn’t cost a lot. . . . [If we] take fossil fuel to the end user, mix in a bit of solar, and use the combination at the highest possible efficiency, by the year 2000 we will have an economy that’s healthy because we haven’t bankrupted it by trying to ship dollars out and oil in. We’ll have people who are more comfortable than they are right now. We’ll have the bridge that gets us out to the advanced energy forms that are going to take us into the future and preserve life for mankind. But to do that, we’ve got to make a decision and do it now. Well, PiperHydro made its decision [to go solar] awhile back. We know what we’re talking about. We’re actually doing it. We’re selling it. We’re making a profit with it. We’ve turned around and, instead of waste for profit, we’ve discovered a way to conserve for profit. And yet we have this mighty force against us that feeds on itself. The people involved may know that they’re doing the wrong thing, but they don’t have an opportunity to do the right thing. And I blame government, .. . its unresponsive, immoral reaction: “We’ll be gone when the problem intensifies. Somebody else will have been elected. Let them have the problem.” The government won’t bite the bullet and say, we’ve got to stop this now. OBSERVER: What about the federal government and solar development? PIPER: ERDA [now DOE] has a philosophy that big is good, small is bad, and the government knows everything. I don’t know how it got started, but it’s not true. Some of the people in ERDA will tell you quietly, privately, that [PiperHydro’s] got the greatest thing since canned beer. But not publicly. OBSERVER: What do you think are the advantages of small business being involved in something like solar energy? PIPER: Well, if you look over the last century at the major technological advances that have occurred in the United States, far and away the majority of them have come from a small business . . . A lot of what is now big business grew up around a small business that made a technological advance and then pursued it. OBSERVER: How do you picture the future? PIPER: If man as we know him survives. eventually he is going to use solar energy to do just about everything because that is all he’s going to have left. The other forms of energy are either going to be gone, or so expensive that he is not going to be able to use them. OBSERVER: What does all this mean for the utilities? PIPER: To a great extent, the distributors of energy, the electric utilities, are in very bad shape economically because they have huge overhanging debt. We have a centralized energy economy today because of the utilities. I don’t think [they] are going to disappear in the [foreseeable] future . . . But if they continue to try to solve their problems in the way they have in the past, they will put on a greater amount of debt. For example, if they have a $1 billion book value, they try to service their existing debt by borrowing another $1 billion and building a nuclear generating plant. Now they will have a $2 billion book value and can get their interest on the debt rolled into the rate base so that the public pays the interest . . . They’ll worry about keeping [the nuclear plants] in operation and selling electricity later. Right now, they’ll survive. [They’re acting like] a man in a hole, digging it deeper to get the dirt to fill it in. If solar power becomes a reality now, it will stop the requirements for that additional capital. They don’t have to go out and build great big additions to their plants because we can use solar energy to take the edge off. OBSERVER: What about the potential of utilities to take over solar energy or lease solar equipment? PIPER: The utilities know they are not lean and trim and efficient. because monopolies aren’t that way. And they know growth is everything. They have to get bigger all the time . . . What do you do when you run out of something to sell? You can’t grow. You can’t compete. You can’t survive as a monopoly. Who needs a utility company that hasn’t got something to sell? So the utilities have looked at solar and said one of the ways they can [survive] is to hang a Btu meter on the sun and sell the energy that comes from it. .. . They’re going to ask their public relations people, “In what ways can we convince the public that this is a good thing for them?” One way is to say that it costs too much for the public to own their own little private utility system called solar. That public relations effort has been underway for some time and it’s very effective. Dan Noyes lives in Oakland, California, and is director of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Jim Piper 10 JANUARY 19, 1979
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