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Archive for April, 2012

What will the solar landscape look like in the next 5 to 25 years? With growing demand for energy and the imperative of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions dramatically by mid-century, it is certain that solar power will have a major role to play. At the same time, a flood of inexpensive solar panels from China and political uncertainty surrounding tax incentives have led to significant instability in the domestic solar industry. I had a chance to attend two panel discussions held by MIT on March 16, 2012 as part of the 2012 MIT Energy Conference, in which experts from the MIT faculty, the federal government, the solar industry and venture capital attempted to shed some light on the direction that solar energy is heading.

The manufacturing cost of solar panels has been declining rapidly, from around $100 per watt in the 1970s to between $1 and $2 per watt at present. Minh Le from the US Department of Energy discussed the Obama Administration’s Sunshot Initiative, which aims to reduce the cost of solar energy by 2-3 times, making it cost-competitive with other energy generation technologies by the end of the decade. The current goal is $2 per watt for residential solar (including installation and other balance of systems costs). The panelists agreed that the costs of physical panels would continue to decrease over the next 5-10 years, thanks to new technologies and manufacturing techniques (for example, technology website Ars Technica recently reported on a new manufacturing technology that promises to reduce manufacturing costs on solar cells to $0.40 per watt, about half of the lowest-cost current panels). Adam Lorenz of 1366 Technologies stated that he expects crystalline silicon cells to be competitive with the wholesale rate for coal power within 5 to 8 years.

The Sunshot Initiative also aims to reduce overall costs by streamlining the rather Byzantine permitting process in the US, which currently involves dealing with over 18,000 permitting jurisdictions and over 5,000 utilities spread across 50 states. The US system was compared unfavorably to the systems in Germany and other countries, where permitting is much easier and government incentives such as the feed-in tariff exist. To ensure investment in solar generating capacity, the panelists emphasized the importance of policy stability. Because of the long return on investment on these projects, the fragmented US system of federal and state incentives tends to discourage investment.

MIT professor Dan Nocera pointed out that while most of the conversation was focused on the developed world, the real growth area for solar technologies is in the least developed areas where grid power does not exist. In these areas, a small, inexpensive photovoltaic unit that would allow people to charge cell phones and operate indoor lights so that children can study after sundown would have an enormous impact on quality of life. Dr. Nocera emphasized that while developed countries must work within their existing infrastructure, developing countries have the opportunity to leapfrog the developed world, in much the same way that many developing countries skipped landline telephones and moved directly to cell phones.

Panelists discussed several areas where government policy is needed to help create a market for solar. A price on carbon, whether a carbon tax, a cap-and-trade system, or a combination of the two, would help clean energy technologies compete with fossil fuels. Australia, which resembles the US in its heavy reliance on fossil fuels, recently enacted a comprehensive carbon pricing scheme. Policies that encourage the electrification of the vehicle fleet, whose batteries could serve as a form of distributed energy storage for the smart grid, would help to address the problem of intermittency. More resources devoted to public education about energy policy issues would help foster an informed public discussion and raise awareness of renewable energy. Dr. Nocera in particular stressed the importance of making the issues visible to the public, and stated that perhaps an oil war on US soil will be needed before the public starts paying attention.

Despite the challenges facing the solar market at the moment, I took away the message that solar power has a bright future (excuse the pun). The panelists agreed that solar photovoltaics will be increasingly competitive with conventional power generation over the next decade. In the longer term, exotic technologies such as transparent solar cells that can replace glass and “artificial leaves” that can generate hydrogen and oxygen to be used in fuel cells promise exciting new applications for solar. Small, inexpensive solar panels promise to dramatically improve the lives of people in developing countries by allowing them to light their houses and charge mobile devices without connecting to the electricity grid. The solar resource base represents thousands of times the amount of energy humans use each year. Converting this energy into a usable form on such a large scale presents significant challenges, but with technological advances steadily driving solar closer to parity with fossil fuels and a number of exciting new kinds of solar technology on the horizon, the task hardly seems impossible.

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On February 16, 2012, technology news website Xconomy hosted a talk in Cambridge with renowned environmentalist and co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) “think-and-do tank” Amory Lovins about the Institute’s Reinventing Fire initiative. Reinventing Fire provides a roadmap for moving the U.S. economy entirely off of coal, oil and nuclear energy by 2050 while at the same time sustaining vigorous economic growth. Unlike other climate change blueprints such as the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Climate 2030 report, the Reinventing Fire initiative does not count on aggressive federal policy initiatives and assumes that the price of CO2 emission will remain zero. It also does not pin its hopes on a technological “silver bullet”. Rather, RMI envisions a series of self-reinforcing cycles of technological improvement in existing technologies across the automotive, building, industrial and electricity sectors that will allow efficient, green technologies to outcompete inefficient, fossil-fuel driven technologies in the market.

In his talk, Lovins focused mostly on the automotive sector. In this area, RMI identifies three self-reinforcing technological learning curves leading to the super light-weight “Revolutionary+ Auto”. The first is whole-system design, where engineers take a holistic approach to automobile design with a view to reducing weight as much as possible. Supporting this are advanced materials, such as the carbon-fiber composites currently used in the new Boeing 787, which could produce massive weight reductions by replacing steel in automobiles. As part of his talk, Lovins passed around a carbon-fiber composite “hat” that was as light as plastic and yet (according to Lovins) had withstood a full-on sledge hammer blow without a scratch. While currently quite expensive and difficult to mass-produce, Lovins sees huge potential for technological improvements in the carbon-fiber manufacturing process eventually making it competitive with other materials. Finally, once weight has been significantly reduced, all-electric powertrains will become more feasible. Current all-electric vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf have a maximum range of about 100 miles on one charge. However, because most of a vehicle’s energy use comes from its weight, a significantly lighter vehicle would be able to go farther with fewer electric batteries and smaller motors (making the vehicle even lighter) than current models.

During the question-and-answer period, an audience member asked about improvements in energy storage technology. Holding up his cell phone, Lovins remarked that he believed that portable electronics would drive innovation in this area, and that it would be better for the automotive industry to focus on reducing weight and drag than on developing new batteries. Lovins also downplayed the need for extensive grid storage to handle a higher mix of intermittent renewable energy sources in our electricity supply. Noting that variability in the energy supply from renewable sources is predictable, Lovins expressed confidence that with sufficient expertise a stable electricity grid could be run with a diverse mixture of 80-100% renewables even in the absence of large-scale storage.

The Reinventing Fire initiative presents a hopeful view of an economy almost completely free of fossil fuels by 2050 based on evolutionary improvements in currently existing technology. Much more information on the initiative is available in the book Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era by Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute (available from Amazon). I am currently in the middle of reading it, and have found it to be well-written and insightful, with helpful color charts and illustrations and a writing style that is understandable for a non-engineer but not overly simplistic. The Reinventing Fire initiative grew out of the RMI’s 2004 book Winning the Oil Endgame, which is available for free in PDF form on the author’s website here. I encourage anyone with an interest in renewable energy and energy efficiency to take a look at these books, or check out Amory Lovins’ TED Talk on winning the oil endgame.

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