Science Progress | Where science, technology, and progressive policy meet

Here Comes the Sun

Solar Power Technologies and Market Opportunities: a Perfect Storm

a solar thermal power plant SOURCE: With a concerted push by policymakers on research, development and deployment of solar technologies, solar renewable energy could dot our landscape. Above: a solar thermal power generation plant.

This past spring marked the 50th anniversary of a little-known but seminal event in U.S. history: the launch of this nation’s first solar energy system. And I really do mean “launch.” In March 1958 the fledgling technology for making electricity from sunlight was embedded in a grapefruit-sized satellite that U.S. engineers flung into orbit as part of America’s rapid response to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik. Sunlight was to power the satellite’s transmitter, which would beep-beep-beep its presence to Earthbound receivers, proving that the United States had a solid stake in the new frontier of space.

As recounted at a National Academies meeting this past week by Lawrence Kazmerski of the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, there was some debate among the engineers designing that satellite. Some just wanted to rely on a battery. As it worked out, both technologies were incorporated. The battery worked fine…for less than three weeks. After it died the solar cells kicked in, and the satellite kept beeping and beeping—for so long, in fact, that the satellite became something of a pest, tying up that Naval Research Laboratory radio frequency for nearly seven years before finally petering out in 1964.

Lesson learned: Next time, include an on-off switch.

With those robust beginnings one might expect, or at least hope, that by now solar energy would be everywhere. But of course it is not (though it is in every one of the many satellites now circling the globe). Solar power today accounts for just a fraction of one percent of U.S. electricity generation, despite our early venture into the technology and despite the Manhattan Project-like call by President Jimmy Carter to get at least 20 percent of our electricity from solar way back in the 1980s.

In the years that Congress passed tax incentive legislation, investment in renewable energy sources skyrocketed.

The reasons for this failure are many. Financial incentives promulgated by President Carter were dismantled by his successor, President Ronald Reagan, who also gutted Carter’s clean energy program. The technology has, until recently, remained frustratingly expensive. And shortages of silicon, a key ingredient for most photovoltaic systems, put a crimp on emerging businesses in the early part of the new millennium.

Now a perfect storm of the best kind appears to be gathering. New technologies are increasing efficiencies and lowerering costs. Fossil fuel prices are skyrocketing—oil imports last year accounted for almost half of the nation’s total trade deficit—making it easier for alternative energies such as solar to prove their cost effectiveness. Climate change adds new incentives for the nation (and indeed, the world) to shift away from carbon-emitting power sources. And here in the United States, at least, huge expanses of territory are constantly awash with sunlight. Indeed, the American Southwest is a veritable Saudi Arabia of sun.

And yet it is not out of the question that the United States may squander this opportunity, according to scientists, investors and politicians who spoke at the National Academies on Tuesday. And as with so many issues in these treacherous times, the factor that stands to make all the difference one way or the other is “political will.”

That’s a general term, of course, and one that is thrown around a lot in Washington. But happily, there seems to be a growing consensus as to what “political will” really means in the realm of renewable and sustainable energy, and in particular for solar energy. Here is what I keep hearing from a wide range of stakeholders:

Institute a cap and trade system that places a price on carbon emissions commensurate with their damage. Everything else follows from this. Until carbon is accurately valued—or devalued—the energy playing field will remain too crooked to stand on.

Create a National Renewable Production Standard. Many states set enforceable goals for themselves for what percentage of their energy production should come from renewable sources. But unless the nation does the same across the board, it will be impossible to have coordinated transmission among regions that are rich in different resources (most notably, sun in the Southwest and wind in the Midwest). In a Novemeber 2007 report from the Center for American Progress, “Capturing the Energy Opportunity,” the Center called for 25 percent of the energy produced in the United States to come from renewable sources by 2025.

Provide long term assurances of investment and production tax credits. Depending on how you calculate things, solar power and wind power are still years or even a decade from being fully cost competitive, but we don’t have that kind of time to kill. The evidence is overwhelming: In the years that Congress passed tax incentive legislation, investment in renewable energy sources skyrocketed. In years when those incentives failed on Capitol Hill, those investments took a nosedive. Pay-as-you-go conservatives should not be allowed to block these incentives with their false economic analyses that ignore the long-term savings to be gained by earlier adoption of renewable technologies. Moreover, these incentives should be designed to last at least a decade, to provide the kind of stability and assurance that will prove truly inviting to investors.

Revive federal investment in renewable energy research and development. Time was, a few decades ago, that the Department of Energy invested billions annually in renewable energy R&D. Indeed, the federal government accounted for 98 percent of solar research in the country. Today, DoE’s renewable energy budget is a mere $250 million or so—most of it in photovoltaics even though the other major method of capturing solar energy, thermal capture, which grabs heat from the sun and uses it to power steam turbines, is equally deserving. Today DoE’s funding of solar energy R&D is just 2 percent of the national total, a pittance given the importance of government investment at this crucial stage of technology development.

Of course, making the transition to renewable energy will not be simple. Environmental issues must be addressed, including the effects of large-array solar facilities on endangered species such as the desert tortoise. Companies also complain, with some legitimacy, that as empty as the southwest deserts seem, the patchwork of federal and private land ownership in that region complicates the resolution of land-use issues. “There’s a challenging permitting process” in the California desert, said Steve Kline, a vice president at Pacific Gas & Electric Co., deftly sidestepping the public relations hurdles that even a solar-centric PG&E will still have to face in the aftermath of the Erin Brockovich debacle.

Finally there are lingering technological challenges. Solar thermal capture systems are virtually 100 percent efficient already, but construction costs need to be lowered considerably. Photovoltaics must become more efficient and cost effective—and are expected to do so in double-digit leaps over the next few years as better physics and chemistry are brought on line, especially through nanotechnology. Energy storage must be improved, since sunlight is obviously no way to power a city at night. But studies show that energy demand actually tracks peak sunlight times quite closely, so being able to store captured energy for just an hour or two would go most of the way to allowing full reliance on sunlight.

Finally, the nation’s infrastructure of transmission lines needs to be upgraded, through a creative pubic-private partnership, to carry energy cheaply and efficiently from the places where sun and wind are most prevalent to regions that are lacking. That is an interstate-highway-like project that the next president should immediately take on with Eisenhower-ish zeal.

By one estimate, the mere elimination of scattered, small but constantly occurring power interruptions caused by storms and other insults to our aging transmission lines would save something like $80 billion a year. Savings like those could offset upgrade expenses considerably. But for those looking for cold cash up front to prime the renewable energy research pump, there’s plenty of that to be had as well—in the suitcases of dough now being spent on federal tax beaks and subsidies for the oil and gas industries.

ExxonMobil Corp. on July 31 reported second quarter profits of $11.7 billion, the largest in history. Ongoing subsidies for a company as well heeled as that are about as anachronistic as a satellite that can do no more than beep.

Rick Weiss is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Science Progress.

Tags: ,

Comments on this article

By clicking and submitting a comment I acknowledge the Science Progress Privacy Policy and agree to the Science Progress Terms of Use. I understand that my comments are also being governed by Facebook's Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.