Degree Year


Document Type

Thesis - Open Access

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts


Environmental Studies


Lawrence Buell
Gilbert Meilaender
Harlan Garnett Wilson


Solar, Electric, Technology, Photovoltaics, Solar energy


In this thesis I will address three large issues related to the development of this solar electric technology: First, I wish to demonstrate that photovoltaics offer significant advantages over traditional, nonrenewable energy sources- that they are superior to the technologies now used. Part I thus consists of a comparative analysis of coal-fired power plants, nuclear fission plants, and photovoltaics. These are widely seen as the most likely options in American electricity generation. Each of these energy systems will be discussed along the following four dimensions: geology and natural limits (i.e., resource availability and waste management); technology (plant efficiencies and the relative merits of centralization); economics (initial capital investment, economies of scale, and long-term issues); and politics and policy (the capture theory of government, economic determinism, and prudence).

The second task is to show that solar energy is important enough to develop, despite the lack of short-term economic incentives to invest in solar electricity. If this is the case, then the argument for photovoltaics takes on new dimensions: instead of merely speaking about photovoltaics as “efficient” or “cost-feasible,” we may also say that it is the proper action to take. The consideration of proper actions, and the justification for one proper action over another, is the domain of ethics. Part II assesses some of the ethical issues surrounding our energy future. This section focuses on our obligations to future generations, with reference to the three conventional schools of ethical thought: consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics. Part II concludes by broadly defining our needs in terms of all of these perspectives, along with a concern for human nature and the importance of vision. While this analysis operates on a far more theoretical and abstract level than Part I, its findings are clearly pertinent to the crucial issue of which technologies will be employed in our not-so-distant future.

The final section of the thesis ponders the problem of change: How will our society shift its priorities to bring about the use of photovoltaics? The two strategies which have gained the most attention among environmental writers might be labeled “paradigm shifts” and “muddling.” After discussing some of the ramifications and underlying assumptions of these alternatives, I offer arguments for the adoption of what I call “visionary muddling,” which combines the best of each of these two alternatives.