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Posts Tagged ‘MIT Energy Club’

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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Dr. Steven Chu, the U.S. Secretary of Energy, gave a talk on November 30, 2011 at MIT on how the U.S. can lead in the clean energy race. In addition to discussing several new technologies in renewable energy and energy efficiency that will have great impacts in the coming decades, he challenged MIT students to come up with solutions to barriers to energy efficiency as part of President Obama’s Better Buildings Initiative.

First up, Secretary Chu discussed several technologies of the past century that have drastically changed the way we live. The development of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer in the early 20th century and crop improvements during the Green Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s have so far enabled global food production to keep pace with the expanding population and averted a Malthusian crisis. The evolution from vacuum tubes to transistors to integrated circuits (popular computer processors in 2011 boast in the range of a billion transistors each) has led to a spectacular explosion of consumer electronics that has revolutionized the way we communicate and consume information. Assembly line manufacturing and the relatively rapid adoption of the automobile in the early 20th century changed the face of our cities and solved one pollution problem (mountains of horse excrement) while introducing others (smog, lead, and greenhouse gas emissions).

Against this backdrop, Dr. Chu discussed a number of promising advances that could play major roles in reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. He  focused on advances in materials science, such as the carbon fiber reinforced plastic used in the body of the Boeing 787, the introduction of high tensile strength steel in automobiles, substitutes being developed for rare earth metals used in electronics, more efficient and lower cost solar cells, and next-generation battery technology that shows promise of drastically reducing the cost of energy storage.

Dr. Chu also spoke about the DOE’s Sunshot Initiative, which aims to have cost-competitive solar power by 2020. Due mostly to large scale manufacturing in China, the price of solar photovoltaic panels has plummeted in recent years, outpacing even optimistic estimates. While this has been bad news for certain US companies trying to compete in the market, it has had the advantage of pushing solar ever closer to the magical break-even point where it becomes competitive with fossil fuels. To help people get past the up-front cost of solar installation, companies such as Simply Solar of Arizona offer programs that allow homeowners to lease solar cells for 20 years with a low initial down payment and fixed monthly payments thereafter. For those who are interested, Sun Run offers a similar program here in Massachusetts.

While I found Dr. Chu’s talk to be informative and enjoyable (if a bit technical in parts), I was hoping he would spend more time addressing the policy and business aspects of winning the clean energy race. As Dr. Chu himself noted, the mass production of solar panels in China has made the competitive environment difficult for US firms. Renewable energy policy in this country has largely been left to state and local governments with little leadership from the federal government. I had hoped that Dr. Chu would spend more time discussing the Obama Administration’s roadmap for clean energy over the next 20 to 30 years and the policy steps they are taking to make that happen. Nevertheless, Dr. Chu is an extremely engaging speaker, and the technologies he discussed were exciting.

A video of the talk is available here.

 

 

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