Solar Power isn't Feasible!

Solar Power isn't Feasible!
This cartoon was on the cover of the book "SolarGas" by David Hoye. It echoes the Sharp Solar slogan "Last time I checked nobody owned the sun!"

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Solar Powered Wristwatches and the Zeitgeist Conspiracy

Behold one of the most criminally negligent cartoons ever made:

(Yeah, yeah, I know, you may think the riot-inspiring Danish cartoons showing the Prophet with a bomb in his turban was the worst, oh my brothers -- but they didn't stop anybody from loving God or his messengers while this one has helped nudge us ever more dangerously toward climate catastrophe!)

This irresponsibly stupid cartoon, first published by Jim Unger in 1999, was used even more irresponsibly by Robert L. Sexton in the 2002 edition of his basic textbook "Exploring Microeconomics, 2nd edition".

The completely erroneous and highly prejudicial anti-solar technology cartoon was used by Sexton as the chief illustration for the claim that "someone can take out a patent on what ends up being a bad idea, leading to monopoly losses."

How many undergrads using Sexton's book and enamored with the dogma of poorly thought out economics courses, then snickered and guffawed when well meaning fellow students tried to engage in a serious debate about alternatives to life-threatening fossil and nuclear fuels? How many young entrepreneurs left college with a degree in economics and this flawed and divisive image burned into their subconscious, and turned away from solar energy believing it is "a bad idea" that can lead to economic "losses"?

This is how the Zeitgeist conspiracy works. And this is part of the mythology of the Zeitgeist that has marginalized solar power for the last century and photovoltaics for the last half century.

No doubt Robert L. Sexton would protest that he was not trying to use this cartoon to disparage solar energy. He probably found it when reading the Sunday Funny Papers and thought, "this would be a clever and fun way to get my students to enjoy my textbook." And Jim Unger, when he created this fallacious Herman cartoon, probably didn't give a thought to how it could be used to erode confidence in solar energy in general. He probably doesn't have secret ties to the Bush and Bin Laden families, and may even drive a hybrid car for all we know. There is no "nyeh eh eh... let's use our influence and power as economics professors and syndicated satirists to destroy the market for solar energy!"

But that is what it does. Any replication of a false meme displaces its true counterpart. Lies and truth are substitute, not complementary, goods (to use the economic jargon in Sexton's textbook) and when consumers "purchase" the idea that solar energy is inefficient and a "bad idea", as the cartoon makes it seem and as the sober text with its authoritative weight sets in stone, there is no room on the consumers mental shelf for the reality that solar energy is in fact a very efficient solution to the energy crisis.

Shame on Unger, and shame on Sexton for not thinking through the subtle consequences of their errors!

"How many guys d'you know with a solar-powered wristwatch"? this 1999 travesty asks rhetorically? Well take a look at the truth (courtesy of The's "Top 10 Vintage Solar Powered Watches":

1968: The Synchronar, invented by Roger Riehl. Some claim that besides being solar powered, this was also the first digital watch ever!

1971: The beautiful Uranus, one of the earliest LED watches in existence, made to look like a classic sundial meets digital LED technology!

1976: The Citizen Crystron, the first solar powered analog wristwatch.

1976, The Bicentennial Year Sicura LCD, with the innovation of putting the tiny (yes, really really tiny, Mr. Unger and Mr. Sexton! Ahem!) solar panels on the side of the watch.

1978: The analog version of the Solar Sicura comes out, proving solar power can be as blue-blood Ivy League elegant as any piece of jewelry used to go along with power ties and business lunches (if only Herman had worn this one into his fictional 1999 business meeting!)

1980's: The Seiko Lorus LCD -- proving, like all its predecesors that solar powered watches were emphatically NOT big and bulky (something we've known since the early 1960s -- do your homework Jim Unger!) but could be cheap to buy too.

1990s: Junghans 'Mega Solar' a radio-controlled solar wristwatch synchronized with the Caesium Time Base at Germany's National Institute of Natural Engineering and Sciences.

Why am I so passionate about the history of solar powered watches (thanks, Watchismo Times!)? Because in 1979, a year after I got my YMCA and PADI scuba diving certificates, I wanted to buy a solar powered diving watch for 150 bucks that I found in the back of a Popular Science magazine. It looked a lot like the early Synchronar. It was supposed to be waterproof to depths beyond what I would ever go to, and I had visions of never needing to replace it or any batteries as I travelled from sunny country to sunny country to pursue my diving obsession. At the age of 16 I was convinced that a solar powered wristwatch was the safest, most reliable and most sensible wristwatch a diver could ever own.

But when I went to my local dive shop to inquire, the owner talked me out of it saying, "solar technology? Yeah, sounds great but its unreliable. Unproven technology, you know? I mean, when you are underwater there is no sun, and what about when it rains, and you are out of power? You depend on your dive watch for your life, buddy. Here, buy this new mechanical quartz crystal watch I got in the display case here with the rotating bezel for 150 bucks... much better than some earthy-crunchy solar thing... personally I think solar dive watches are a bad idea..."

Robert Sexton would be proud: "Someone can take out a patent on what the dive shop owner says is a bad idea, which would lead to his monopoly losses (since he had the only dive shop in the area and didn't distribute those watches)"

Ah, the lazy logic of the Zeitgeist Conspiracy! My local dive shop owner wasn't against solar energy per se, and he certainly didn't like the oil industry (because oil spills spoiled his dive tours and cost him money!). But he wasn't going to push for anything he didn't know much about, or take any risks, and all he had to go on was a picture I had in Popular Science vs. the watches he had in his inventory and wanted to sell.

Sorry folks, that's how economics works -- consumer confidence drives markets and consumer confidence is affected by the religious inculcations we receive in undergrad economics courses and from reading the Sunday Comics. Sadly it has all added up for nearly 50 years into a general reluctance to wholeheartedly adopt the most promising technology humanity has ever discovered -- the ability to turn simple, ubiquitous, safe, silent light into useful electricity. And now, with war in the Middle East, the threat of nuclear proliferation and global climate change, we are paying the price for lagging.

Wouldn't it be nice if we could turn back the clock, reset our solar powered wristwatches, and start all over? Perhaps now we still have time to create a new Geist for a new Zeit...

This silly little tongue-in-cheek video that Utility Consultant Frank DiMassa and I just made after visiting solar research and industry sites in Southern Spain, shows how even the most die-hard "status-quo-tician" cannot fail to be moved by the truth of solar technologies now appearing all over Europe. So throw out your obsolete and irresponsible economics textbooks and go see for yourself!


Anonymous said...

All fine and good, but now that Solar Power is cost competitive with fossil fuels and nukes, aren't you going to miss all the controversy and delicious doom and gloom that created such fun times during the "energy crisis?" What pleasure will we be able to take from the newspaper or the nightly news once we all go the way of this fairy tale Spain you are showing,if we all start erecting clean, silent and, I'll admit it, beautiful (but definitely not "macho") solar and wind farms? What will happen to "if it bleeds it leads?" when we don't have to fight over energy anymore, and prices for other commodities stabilize? Mr. Culhane, if your utopian dream of Solar Cities comes true you are are going to emasculate the media, forcing them to replace images of oil-soaked struggling birds and gasping flapping fish with stupid sunflowers and cows in pastures. Of belching smokestacks and mighty tanks and artillery defending our pipelines with kids dancing around windmills. Who can drool over that? Shame on the Spanish -- if Don Quixote was still there he'd be knocking those windmills down. Your vision, and that of people like you, will deny our boys in military service a chance to put themselves into the real life adventure of "wars for oil", condemning them to being pansy peace makers and playing video games to get their thrills. If you get your way, the cancer rate will probably go down dramatically and what will the doctors do? If you get your way, we will have to put up with the annoying sound of birds singing instead of the manly roar of diesel trucks and coal and oil fired power plants. Without the need for fossil fuels and nukes, guys like Homer Simpson will be out of a job and guys like Bin Laden won't have any radioactive material to steal,and guys like us won't have any reason to stick around in Ishkabibble land, living like kings amidst all the poor people for a change (which felt really good, given the working class town I came from in the U.S.). Hell, the Middle East will probably quiet down, and other places too, like Nigeria and stuff, and we will lose our moral fiber and leadership and have no way to prove our superiority. Ick, I say, Ick! Who wants to live in a Kumbaya world or some new Jerusalem without Blake's Dark Satanic Mills to make us feel mighty and powerful? Are you solar people mad? And besides, buddy, you are putting yourself out of a job with this stupid blog -- once everybody goes solar you won't have nothin' to write about anymore. So there. I can't wait to see the day!

Anonymous said...

I like antique watches a lot. These are unique timepieces. And these watches are eco-friendly too.