Sun Day Celebration Promotes Solar Energy

The first observance of Sun Day—during which solar energy was promoted internationally in speeches, rallies, celebrations, and demonstrations—marked the beginning of a period of increased interest in the generation of solar power.


In the aftermath of Sun Day, much of the world became increasingly energy conscious. New technologies sprang up everywhere, particularly in the United States. Some of these inventions were the brainchildren of genuine visionaries with an emotional stake in the future. Other inventions were pure chicanery, their producers more interested in research grants than in helping the world become more environmentally healthy and energy-efficient. Sun Day

Among the most sensible of these innovations was a prefabricated panel that, when filled with concrete, formed the outer shell of a home, a building, or just about any other structure. The creator, Melvin Sachs, Sachs, Melvin dubbed his invention the U-Form. Sachs believed that buildings made of U-Forms could be constructed in about one-third the time it took to use brick, stone, or wood in construction. U-Forms were also energy savers; Sachs claimed they were nearly 70 percent more energy-efficient than conventional building materials. At the February, 1980, World Fair for Technology Exchange in Atlanta, Georgia, Sachs was honored for “significant achievement in technological development.”

Another promising invention was a window shade that moderated air temperature. The shade was capable of making hot air cool and cool air hot, reducing substantially the need for additional heating and air-conditioning. Equally attractive in terms of energy efficiency was the solar heat collector devised by Bill Rogers. Rogers, Bill This device consisted of a computer-powered turntable on which 864 mirrors were mounted. The unit was programmed to follow the sun’s path across the sky, and the heat trapped by the device was used to generate steam-driven electricity and air-conditioning. Rogers came up with the idea as a graduate student; by 1980 a full-scale working model was permanently stationed atop the Science Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.

Not everything labeled solar energy technology need be directly powered by the sun. Solar activists saw energy potential in almost anything natural. Wood, for example, had already made a strong comeback by Sun Day, thanks to soaring oil prices in the early 1970’s. By the 1980’s, wood had surpassed nuclear power as a primary or secondary source of heat in most American homes. Even industries across the United States began to look seriously at wood as an alternative fuel.

Enormous energy potential can also be found in waste material, and after Sun Day, many countries began to explore methods for converting waste to electricity. The Europeans were deeply involved in this technology long before Sun Day. By 1978, three-quarters of all electrical plants employing waste-to-energy conversion were located in Europe. Other plants were located in Japan and the United States.

Livestock and agricultural waste constitutes another potentially huge and replenishable source of energy. Methane Methane is distilled from animal manure, and cheese whey, citrus wastes, and vegetable processing by-products are easily converted into ethanol, Ethanol a fuel-grade alcohol. Ethanol is also derived from so-called energy crops such as sugar cane and cassava. Other natural technologies aimed at energy production involve the harnessing of wind, water, and the heat at the earth’s core.

After Sun Day, industries around the world began to examine nontraditional methods for conserving and generating energy. They began to tap gases from sanitary dumps and landfills. The windmill, an ancient but still valid technology, was put to use in generating electricity. Researchers began modifying automobiles to run on hydrogen. Early in the 1980’s, the Billings Energy Corporation Billings Energy Corporation of Independence, Missouri, marketed a hydrogen-fueled vehicle, a modified Dodge Omni; it sold, complete with water-to-hydrogen converting equipment, for $30,000.

Sun Day did not immediately bring about the solar-powered utopia Denis Hayes had foreseen. In the early twenty-first century the world, and particularly the United States, was still largely dependent on petroleum. U.S. cities and suburbs were still built in huge, sprawling blocks, and, in most places, safe and efficient mass transportation was years if not decades in the future. Although many middle-class American families traveled in smaller, more energy-efficient automobiles, they often owned two or three cars, and many other families bought energy-inefficient sports utility vehicles in the 1990’s. The average American home was still heated by gas or electricity, although some had added solar-based energy-conserving improvements. Industry, far from being energy self-sufficient, had downsized to compete with foreign businesses. Even corporations with environmentally friendly policies were not inclined to employ new, potentially expensive solar technologies. Sun Day
Solar power
Environmental awareness;Sun Day

Further Reading

  • “Arco’s Big Bet.” Time, January 28, 1980. Discusses Atlantic Richfield’s financial investment in Energy Conversion Devices. Illustrates the aggressive interest of the energy establishment in the fledgling solar technology industry.
  • Bradford, Travis. Solar Revolution: The Economic Transformation of the Global Energy Industry. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006. Discusses the potential worldwide economic impacts of the move toward solar energy and away from dependence on fossil fuels.
  • Brown, Lester R. “The Coming Solar Age.” Natural History, February, 1982. Explores various solar options in detail, describing the history and the attributes of each technology. Includes discussions of wind power, the energy potentials of wood and waste, hydrothermal and geothermal power, and the energy uses of the sun itself.
  • Ewing, Rex A. Power with Nature: Solar and Wind Energy Demystified. Masonville, Colo.: Pixyjack Press, 2003. Provides easy-to-understand explanations of both solar and wind power technologies. Includes illustrations, bibliography, and index.
  • Hayes, Denis. “What’s Ahead for Solar Energy? An Interview with Denis Hayes.” U.S. News & World Report, March 3, 1980. Describes the solar future and contemporary problems in the fledgling solar technology industry.
  • “No Shortage of Ideas to Solve the Energy Crisis.” U.S. News & World Report, May 12, 1980. Details the flurry of activity that occurred in the 1970’s in the development of solar energy innovations and technologies. Discusses the problems inherent in solar technology and suggests some possible solutions.

  • Science News 113 (April 22, 1978). Special double-length issue is devoted to the Sun Day celebration and analysis of solar power. Includes articles on, among other topics, the history of solar technologies, the Solar Energy Research Institute, and the sun itself. One of the best single sources for information on Sun Day.

Researchers Develop an Integrated Solar Energy System

Bell Labs Improves Solar Cells

Solar One Begins Operation in the Mojave Desert

General Motors Sponsors a Solar-Powered Car Race