Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Solar Industry to Researchers: Go Ahead, Slack Off

There's no big hurry to generate photovoltaic breakthroughs. Go ahead, vacation like the Europeans do, surf the net all day for porn, hog the bong and dirty up your Che Guevara shirt. Solar's gonna take care of itself in good time, that's what the industry is saying. Hmm... we have a robot that can now play Frogger; maybe it'll perform a "Lawn Mower Man" jump in processing capability, build an array photovoltaic-powered "death satellites" that will burn the infidel species...

Whatever. You can read the bible of the solar industry here, or you can go on
a horrific acid binge with the rest of the photovoltaic engineers, envisioning a
giant preying mantis biting your head off. Grooovy...

The federal government is behind the times when it comes to making decisions about advancing the solar industry, according to several solar-industry experts. This has led, they argue, to a misplaced emphasis on research into futuristic new technologies, rather than support for scaling up existing ones. That was the prevailing opinion at a symposium last week put together by the National Academies in Washington, DC, on the topic of scaling up the solar industry.

The meeting was attended by numerous experts from the photovoltaic industry and academia. And many complained that the emphasis on finding new technologies is misplaced. "This is such a fast-moving field," said Ken Zweibel, director of the Solar Institute at George Washington University. "To some degree, we're fighting the last war. We're answering the questions from 5, 10, 15 years ago in a world where things have really changed."


Meanwhile, says Zweibel, conventional technologies "have made the kind of progress that we were hoping futuristic technologies could make." For example, researchers have sought to bring the cost of solar power to under $1 per watt, and as of the first quarter of this year one company, First Solar, has done this.

These cost reductions have made solar power cheaper than the natural-gas-powered plants used to produce extra electricity to meet demand on hot summer days. With subsidies, which Zweibel argues are justified because of the "externalities" of other power sources, such as the cost from pollution, solar can be competitive with conventional electricity even outside peak demand times, at least in California. And projected cost decreases will make solar competitive with current electricity prices in more areas, even without subsidies.

Representatives of the solar industry say the federal government should do more to remove obstacles that are slowing the industry's development. One issue is financing for new solar installations, which can be much more expensive if lending institutions deem them high risk. A recent extension of federal tax credits and grants for solar investments is a step in the right direction, many solar experts say. But more could be done. A price on carbon would help make solar more economically competitive and more attractive to lenders.

- Brewskie

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