Solar energy and the economy

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

A solar home was featured at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. Its architect, John Kech, continued to build solar homes in the Chicago area for many years.

Following World War II, President Harry S. Truman had a team of advisers develop a national solar energy plan to increase its presence in our economy, but it was never implemented.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, listening to a different set of advisers, chose to promote nuclear energy as the power source of the future.

With the advent of the Space Age in the 1950s, solar energy gained a niche, which renewed interest in it once again.

The peaking of conventional oil in the U.S. and the formation of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) produced a dramatic increase in the price of oil, which weakened our economy. The administration of President Jimmy Carter pushed energy efficiency, solar energy and nuclear energy to reduce our dependence on imported oil. Progress was made, but faltered when Carter failed to gain a second term.

President Ronald Reagan cut support for efficiency and solar energy and persuaded Saudi Arabia to flood the market with oil, which dramatically reduced its price, increasing our reliance on it.

To keep the solar movement alive, Richard Perez of Home Power magazine suggested a series of energy fairs be created to bring people together to teach them about energy efficiency and renewable energy.

A group of people near Stevens Point, Wis., picked up the idea and started an energy fair. The event drew its initial support from young adults who had moved to the rural setting to create lifestyles that were less environmentally damaging. The effort gained support from the State of Wisconsin, as it has no indigenous energy sources other than wood and was spending billions of dollars per year on imported energy.

We, and others in Illinois who attended the Wisconsin event, decided to create an energy fair in Illinois. This year, the Illinois Renewable Energy Association will host our 11th Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair Aug. 11-12 in Ogle County.

The push for renewable energy and efficiency expanded when federal and state incentives became available for upgrading energy efficiency standards in buildings and cars, alternative fuels, electric vehicles and hybrid cars, wind, solar energy and geothermal energy.

The rapid rate of growth in the renewable energy industry has slowed recently, as low natural gas prices, pressures on government budgets and weak economic conditions have taken their toll. Yet, public support, as indicated by opinion polls, remains favorable toward the industry.

In Illinois, local solar installers report business has slowed along with the rest of the economy. While understandable, it is also ironic as prices on solar electric systems are at an all-time low. State rebates, while limited and episodic, are still being offered. Federal tax credits remain in place.

Overall, sales of solar systems nationally are up, but the rate of growth has slowed. Commercial interests, such as Walmart, continue to upgrade efficiency in their operations and install renewable energy systems.

In the Rockford area, installations at the Burpee Museum, the Nicholas Conservatory, the water pumping station at Bell School Road, The energy-efficient Swedish house, the new science building at Rock Valley College and the installations at Freedom Field are visible symbols of progress in renewable energy.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail

From the April 25-May 1, 2012, issue

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