DoE Secretary Steven Chu: We Need Nobel-Level Breakthroughs

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu
Secretary of Energy Steven Chu

Yesterday the New York Times published an interview (including some of the original audio) with our new Energy Secretary, Steven Chu. Among other comments, he said that to address the climate emergency, we need “Nobel-level breakthroughs” in several key areas – batteries, biofuels, and solar photovoltaics.” As an illustration, he pointed out:

The photovoltaics we have today, … without subsidy, and without even the additional cost of storage, it’s about a factor of five higher than electricity generation by gas or coal. Suppose someone comes along and invents a way of getting … solar photovoltaics at one fifth the cost, so you don’t even think about subsidies anymore. You just slap it everywhere… That, in my opinion, would take something, which I would say, is a bit of a breakthrough.”

There’s no arguing with that idea – if solar PV were five times cheaper, no one would need complicated “payback period” models to justify installing it. (Luckily, we do have those models, and so some people are taking the plunge.)

Of course, this is just the story of how technologies advance – it’s very familiar from the rise of semiconductors. A technology needs an ever-expanding “feedstock” of innovations, discoveries, and breakthroughs to grow at an exponential rate. In semiconductors, the history of technologies such as FET, MOS, CMOS, new clean room techniques, different types of lithography, and many other innovations each offered ever decreasing feature size and lower cost. This parade of innovations combined to ensure that just when one technology was reaching its limit of compactness, another newer and more efficient technology would be there to take its place. When the new one ran out of steam the cycle would repeat. (And several of those innovations resulted in Nobels.)

One example of the “old thinking” on PV is the projections about its availability and cost. Many of these projections assume a linear improvement in price/performance. To help save the world, the price/performance of solar electricity and batteries and efficiency and fuel cells must come down faster than the typical, linear projections – just as it did for semiconductors.

Luckily, despite a current dip in investment and research levels due to the economy, this is happening in the solar photovoltaics domain. [intlink id=”210″ type=”post”]New[/intlink] [intlink id=”218″ type=”post”]discoveries[/intlink], new manufacturing methods, and [intlink id=”66″ type=”post”]new thinking[/intlink] will continue to drive the price down. With luck, Chu’s support from his bully pulpit in the DoE can accelerate this process.

Hat tip to Watthead for turning me on to this interview.

30-fold Increase In Solar Energy By 2016 – Moore’s Law, Anyone?

Solar Power International Logo
Solar Power International Logo

The opening keynotes at the Solar Power International trade show last week were eye-opening. (See the Tuesday Keynotes video on this page – Resch at 20 minutes, Hamm at 37 minutes.)

Rhone Resch of the Solar Energy Industries Association first told the story of getting the investment tax credit for solar renewed – 17 failed votes before it finally passed with the Paulson Bailout bill. He then outlined the benefits to the solar industry of the ITC – stability for solar energy businesses, creation of thousands of new business opportunities due to the remove of the residential solar cap, and a return to leadership of the US in solar. “Solar energy is going to create 440k new jobs, 1.2 million new solar installations, and 28 gigawatts of new capacity – enough to power seven million homes throughout the U.S.”

To achieve the 28 gigawatts of new solar electric generation capacity predicted by Resch in the next eight years, Julia Hamm of the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) threw down a challenge to the attendees. The industry must “be bold, be innovative, be strategic.” In particular, she outlined four key policy guidelines the industry must embrace to achieve this goal.

Utility Ownership of Solar Power Projects

The utility and solar industries must collaborate to find program structures, such as utility ownership of distributed photovoltaics, that provide a winning scenario for both industries, as well as for customers at large. The solar industry can utilize this new market segment as a buffer until home and small business owners are back on more solid financial footing.

Increased Utility Engagement in Solar Markets

The utility and solar industries must work together to get more utilities engaged, starting by increasing the solar knowledge base of utility employees, from top executives down to distribution engineers. We must move beyond having ninety seven percent of all grid-connected solar installations in just 10 utilities’ service territories.

Greased Wheels

The utility and solar industries must work in partnership with regulators and investors to push for approval and funding of new transmission projects and the development of smart grid configurations to expedite the timeframe in which new utility-scale and distributed solar projects can come on line and provide maximum value.

Development of Innovative Approaches

By working in collaboration, the utility and solar industries can make great strides towards modernizing today’s electricity infrastructure and offering customers affordable and clean power. But the status quo will not cut it. We need bold new ideas developed in tandem for the mutual benefit of both industries, and society at large.

(A press release version of this challenge is here.)

The 28 gigawatt figure represents an increase in solar capacity of more than thirty fold between 2009 and 2016. This is approximately three times the estimated amount of generation predicted to come online as a result of existing renewable portfolio standards and policies in states with existing solar carve outs.

However, not only does 30-fold growth far outstrip most predictions for solar energy capacity in the next eight years, it has another interesting property. It corresponds to a “Moore’s Law-type” of growth, with a doubling period of about every 18 months. This is the first time I’ve heard a solar energy organization step up to a prediction of a Moore’s Law-type growth rate. And it means that in 18 years, if the doubling rate stays constant, solar would be responsible for over 400 gigawatts of capacity, or just about equal to our current energy usage in the U.S. Solar could be providing nearly 100 percent of our energy by 2026, or even more if our overall energy usage goes down due to efficiency, as is possible given California’s example.

And if our solar capacity keeps on doubling every year and half after that? What will we do with all that energy? Your comments welcome, of course!

Some Experts Say “Moore’s Law Does Not Apply To Solar PV” – Kurzweil (and Page) Disagree

Exponential growth of computing. 20th to 21st ...Image via Wikipedia

In his call to action two weeks ago, Al Gore compared the future development of solar electricity sources to the development of the semiconductor industry. His implication was that Moore’s Law, which reliably predicted that the price/performance of semiconductors doubled every 18 months, would also apply to photovoltaics.

ComputerWorld, in an article two weeks ago, assesses this comparison as flawed. (As did Harry Gray of Cal Tech, as I reported earlier today.)

“But does Moore’s Law also apply to the solar energy industry? The short answer is no. As with microprocessor technology, the price and performance of photovoltaic solar electric cell is improving. And Gore can clearly point to price drops of solar cells to make his case. But the efficiency of those solar cells — their ability to convert sunlight into electric energy — is not increasing as rapidly.”

The article goes on to suggest reasons that Moore’s Law might not apply – there’s a lot more to solar panels than just silicon, while the price/kilowatt has been coming down, it doesn’t seem to be coming down fast, etc.

However, there are other opinions. The best explainer and interpreter of Moore’s Law, and exponential growth in general, is Ray Kurzweil. His Law of Accelerating Returns is essentially a generalization of Moore’s Law that applies to all information technologies. (Learn a lot more about accelerating returns and exponential growth in his recent book, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.)

A panel convened by the National Association of Engineers, including Kurzweil and Larry Page of Google, concluded that:

“We are not that far away from a tipping point where energy from solar will be [economically] competitive with fossil fuels.”

Kurzweil characterizes solar energy technologies as “information technologies,” especially as nanotech gets into the picture.

“We also see an exponential progression in the use of solar energy,” he said. “It is doubling now every two years. Doubling every two years means multiplying by 1,000 in 20 years. At that rate we’ll meet 100 percent of our energy needs in 20 years.”

I think we may be at one of the most interesting points in human history, when technology is changing so fast around us that in twenty years the world will almost literally be unrecognizable compared to today. (One of the side effects of the Law of Accelerating Returns is that the world changes completely on a regular basis – it just gets faster and faster!)

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CalTech Chemist Puts 10-year Target on “Competitive Solar Energy”

On 140 acres of unused land on Nellis Air Forc...Image via Wikipedia

Harry Gray, the Arnold O. Beckman Professor of Chemistry and Founding Director of the Beckman Institute at CalTech, spoke at the American Chemical Society annual meeting in April of this year.

Expert Foresees 10 More Years Of Research & Development To Make Solar Energy Competitive

Gray emphasized this point: “The pressure is on chemists to make hydrogen from something other than natural gas or coal. We’ve got to start making it from sunlight and water.”

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