Monday, July 16, 2007

Waiting for a Solar Power Breakthrough

The solar-powered revolution may require a breakthrough or two in order to become a reality, according to the New York Times article excerpted below:
Scientists long ago calculated that an hour’s worth of the sunlight bathing the planet held far more energy than humans worldwide could use in a year, and the first practical devices for converting light to electricity were designed more than half a century ago.
Yet research on solar power and methods for storing intermittent energy has long received less spending, both in the United States and in other industrialized countries, than energy options with more political support.
Indeed, there are few major programs looking for ways to drastically reduce the cost of converting sunlight to energy and — of equal if not more importance — of efficiently storing it for when the sun is not shining.
Scientists are hoping to expand the range of sunlight’s wavelengths that can be absorbed, and to cut the amount of energy the cells lose to heat. One goal is to make materials to force photons to ricochet around inside the silicon to give up more of their energy.
For decades, conventional nuclear power and nuclear fusion received dominant shares of government energy-research money. While venture capitalists often support the commercialization of new technologies, basic research money comes almost entirely from the federal government.
These days, a growing amount of government money is headed to the farm-state favorite, biofuels, and to research on burning coal while capturing the resulting carbon dioxide, the main heat-trapping smokestack gas.
In the current fiscal year, the Energy Department plans to spend $159 million on solar research and development. It will spend nearly double, $303 million, on nuclear energy research and development, and nearly triple, $427 million, on coal, as well as $167 million on other fossil fuel research and development.
Raymond L. Orbach, the under secretary of energy for science, said the administration’s challenge was to spread a finite pot of money to all the technologies that will help supply energy without adding to global warming. “No one source of energy that we know of is going to solve it,” Dr. Orbach said. “This is about a portfolio.”
In the battle for money from Washington, solar lobbyists say they are outgunned by their counterparts representing coal, corn and the atom.
“Coal and nuclear count their lobbying budgets in the tens of millions,” said Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association. “We count ours in the tens of thousands.”
Government spending on energy research has long been shaped by political constituencies. Nuclear power, for example, has enjoyed consistent support from the Senate Energy Committee no matter which party is in power — in large part because Senators Jeff Bingaman and
Pete V. Domenici, the Democratic chairman and the ranking Republican, are both from New Mexico, home to Los Alamos National Laboratory and a branch of the Sandia National Laboratories.

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tonyatmdm said...

Home owners, financiers and industry are not seeing the long term cash flow benefits of locking in today's energy prices for the 30 to 40 years. There is enough long term cash flow to make the investment cash flow positive in todays money. It just that we all have short term planning horizons.
Home Solar Power has a great explanation of this.

Newington UCC said...

Ray Kurzweil at the UCC General Synod "Synod in the City" day in late June in Hartford talked about solar breakthroughs in the next few years. Here is same info from WPI speech from May 2007 that he made:

"The next revolution is nanotechnology, where we're applying information technology to matter and energy. We'll be able to overcome major problems that human civilization has struggled with. For example, energy. We have a little bit of sunlight here today. If we captured .03 percent, that’s three ten-thousandths of the sunlight that falls on the Earth, we could meet all of our energy needs. We can't do that today because solar panels are very heavy, expensive and inefficient. New nano-engineered designs, designing them at the molecular level will enable us to create very inexpensive, very efficient, light-weight solar panels, store the energy in nano-engineered fuel cells, which are highly decentralized, and meet all of our energy needs."