How Big Oil Controlled the U.S. Photovoltaic Industry

solar powerWe could have been steadily weaned off of oil consumption by now through solar technology development in the United States. Instead we are facing the worst environmental oil spill in history. In 1974, Congress enacted the Solar Energy Research Development and Demonstration Act to stem the nation’s dependence on oil. In the following years, the government spent $6 billion to improve photovoltaic production levels, reduce costs and stimulate private sector purchases.

So what happened to deter progress?

Big Oil bought and controlled the alternative energy business because Big Oil’s main business is and has always been oil, gas, coal and petrochemical profits first. The “private sector” stimulated was the mergers and buy-outs of smaller photovoltaic research and development companies by Big Oil companies. The plan was simple. Big Oil seized and took control of the research and patents – if you control the market, you control the development of a product. Here’s the time line:

In 1973, Karl Boer formed Solar Energy Systems to market photovoltaic cells and then transferred the majority of his stock to Shell Oil Company.

Around 1974, Mobil Oil joint ventured with Tyco Laboratories and created Mobil-Tyco Solar Energy Corporation.

In 1975, Exxon assumed Solar Power Corporation as a wholly owned subsidiary.

In 1977, Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) invested in a photovoltaic company in Camarillo, California and began manufacturing solar cells and panels.

In 1980, ARCO Solar was the first company to produce more than 1 megawatt (a thousand kilowatts) of photovoltaic modules in one year.

That same year in 1980, British Petroleum (BP) entered the solar market when it bought out Lucas Energy Systems.

In 1982, ARCO Solar completed the first megawatt-scale photovoltaic power station in Hisperia, California.

In 1983, ARCO Solar dedicated a 6-megawatt photovoltaic substation in central California.

Around 1983, AMOCO Solar Company, a subsidiary of American Oil Company (AMOCO) acquired the Solarex factory in Frederick, Maryland.

In 1986 ARCO Solar built the first utility-scale photovoltaic generating facility in Texas and also introduced the first commercial thin film photovoltaic module.

Then in 1987, Solarex, AMOCO’s subsidiary, sued ARCO Solar for patent violations, effectively halting ARCO’s Solar’s photovoltaic business.

In 1993, Solarex sued United Solar, a joint venture of Energy Conversion Devices and Canon of Japan, for patent infringement practices.

During the same year, Mobil Oil closed its 19-year solar demonstration plant in Billerica, Massachusetts. The New York Times reported that Mobil stated that although it had developed more efficient, less expensive solar cells, “the electric utility industry market for solar energy is small and is unlikely to grow to large-scale demand in the near term.”

In 1995, Solarex changed its name when Enron Corporation of Houston and AMOCO/Solarex entered into a joint venture and merged into Amoco/Enron Solar, each of the corporate partners owning 50-percent interest in the photovoltaic company.

In 1998, in the world’s largest industrial merger, AMOCO merged with BP. In 1999, BP AMOCO purchased Enron’s 50-percent share and created BP Solarex, and in 2000, BP acquired ARCO now officially known as BP West Coast Products LLC.

BP Solar is now one of the largest solar manufacturing companies in the world. In March 2010, BP announced it will close the Frederick, Maryland manufacturing plant and move its business into facilities in China, India and other countries.

For years, Big Oil controlled much of the photovoltaic technology while pushing oil on consumers and telling the public that solar technology was not “market ready” and “too expensive.” During the same time, Big Oil joined the “Global Climate Coalition” an industry effort to debunk the growing scientific evidence of global warming caused by too much oil consumption.

tracy-emblemThe drilling continues with tens of billions in tax breaks and a royalty waiver program established by Congress in 1995 for off shore drilling in “deep waters.” Thirty-six years later, America is still dependent on Big Oil’s control of the environment and global economy. As a recent television commercial reminded about our failure to wean our nation off Big Oil, if not now, when?

Tracy Emblem

Tracy Emblem is an attorney in Escondido.


  1. says

    The big spill is an additional grand opportunity for BP and co. to eliminate both environment and environment-based jobs in the Gulf, thereby making the Gulf and Lousiana safe for pure oil exploitation and petrochem industries.

    Latest twist. BP is now burning surface oil in such a way as to burn up the endangered sea turtles.

    Next stop, BP’s planned Arctic drilling. From an artificial island platforms, allegedly theoretically not ‘offshore’.

    As usual, the Obama administration is either all for it (the amazingly un-fire-able Salazar and his gang) or playing the amazingly helpless commander in chief (Obama).

    [By the way, McChrystal’s firing might seem not to fit the pattern of the White House’ studied helplessness, but in fact McChrystal clearly bargained to get fired – as a way of ditching his own crazy war, without having to be seen as quitting. And it’s clear that he was fired not for the craziness of the war itself but because – calculatedly – he stridently and obnoxiously told the truth about the white house wimps.]

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