July 16, 2007

Solar Power Captures Imagination, Not Money


The trade association for the nuclear power industry recently asked 
1,000 Americans what energy source they thought would be used most 
for generating electricity in 15 years. The top choice? Not nuclear 
plants, or coal or natural gas. The winner was the sun, cited by 27 
percent of those polled.

It is no wonder solar power has captured the public imagination. 
Panels that convert sunlight to electricity are winning supporters 
around the world - from Europe, where gleaming arrays cloak 
skyscrapers and farmers' fields, to Wall Street, where stock 
offerings for panel makers have had a great ride, to California, 
where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Million Solar Roofs" initiative 
is promoted as building a homegrown industry and fighting global 

But for all the enthusiasm about harvesting sunlight, some of the 
most ardent experts and investors say that moving this energy source 
from niche to mainstream - last year it provided less than 0.01 
percent of the country's electricity supply - is unlikely without 
significant technological breakthroughs. And given the current scale 
of research in private and government laboratories, that is not 
expected to happen anytime soon.

Even a quarter century from now, says the Energy Department official 
in charge of renewable energy, solar power might account for, at 
best, 2 or 3 percent of the grid electricity in the United States.

In the meantime, coal-burning power plants, the main source of 
smokestack emissions linked to global warming, are being built around 
the world at a rate of more than one a week.

Propelled by government incentives in Germany and Japan, as well as a 
growing number of American states, sales of solar panels made of 
silicon that convert sunlight directly into electricity, known as 
photovoltaic cells, have taken off, lowering manufacturing costs and 
leading to product refinements.

But Vinod Khosla, a prominent Silicon Valley entrepreneur who focuses 
on energy, said the market-driven improvements were not happening 
fast enough to put solar technology beyond much more than a boutique 

"Most of the environmental stuff out there now is toys compared to 
the scale we need to really solve the planet's problems," Mr. Khosla 

Scientists long ago calculated that an hour's worth of the sunlight 
bathing the planet held far more energy than humans worldwide could 
use in a year, and the first practical devices for converting light 
to electricity were designed more than half a century ago.

Yet research on solar power and methods for storing intermittent 
energy has long received less spending, both in the United States and 
in other industrialized countries, than energy options with more 
political support.

Indeed, there are few major programs looking for ways to drastically 
reduce the cost of converting sunlight to energy and - of equal if 
not more importance - of efficiently storing it for when the sun is 
not shining.

Scientists are hoping to expand the range of sunlight's wavelengths 
that can be absorbed, and to cut the amount of energy the cells lose 
to heat. One goal is to make materials to force photons to ricochet 
around inside the silicon to give up more of their energy.

For decades, conventional nuclear power and nuclear fusion received 
dominant shares of government energy-research money. While venture 
capitalists often support the commercialization of new technologies, 
basic research money comes almost entirely from the federal 

These days, a growing amount of government money is headed to the 
farm-state favorite, biofuels, and to research on burning coal while 
capturing the resulting carbon dioxide, the main heat-trapping 
smokestack gas.

In the current fiscal year, the Energy Department plans to spend $159 
million on solar research and development. It will spend nearly 
double, $303 million, on nuclear energy research and development, and 
nearly triple, $427 million, on coal, as well as $167 million on 
other fossil fuel research and development.

Raymond L. Orbach, the under secretary of energy for science, said 
the administration's challenge was to spread a finite pot of money to 
all the technologies that will help supply energy without adding to 
global warming. "No one source of energy that we know of is going to 
solve it," Dr. Orbach said. "This is about a portfolio."

In the battle for money from Washington, solar lobbyists say they are 
outgunned by their counterparts representing coal, corn and the atom.

"Coal and nuclear count their lobbying budgets in the tens of 
millions," said Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries 
Association. "We count ours in the tens of thousands."

Government spending on energy research has long been shaped by 
political constituencies. Nuclear power, for example, has enjoyed 
consistent support from the Senate Energy Committee no matter which 
party is in power - in large part because Senators Jeff Bingaman and 
Pete V. Domenici, the Democratic chairman and the ranking Republican, 
are both from New Mexico, home to Los Alamos National Laboratory and 
a branch of the Sandia National Laboratories.

Biofuels, mostly ethanol and biodiesel, have attracted lawmakers who 
support farm subsidies. Last year an impromptu coalition established 
a goal of producing 25 percent of the country's energy, including 
vehicle fuel, from renewable sources by 2025. Legislation to that 
effect attracted 34 senators and 69 representatives as co-sponsors; 
the resolutions are pending in both houses. Most of the measure's 
supporters are from agricultural areas.

For the moment, the strongest government support for solar power is 
coming from the states, not Washington. But there, too, the focus 
remains on stimulating markets, not laboratory research.

The federal government is proposing more spending on solar research 
now, but not enough to set off a large, sustained energy quest, many 
experts say.

"This is not an arena where private energy companies are likely to 
make the breakthrough," said Nathan S. Lewis, head of a 
solar-research laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.

Many environmental organizations are pushing for tax credits for 
people who buy solar equipment, which helps manufacturing but not 

Still, some experts say government-financed research efforts often go 
awry. And several government officials defended the current effort, 
saying an outsize investment in solar research is not needed because 
the industry is already in high gear.

Bush administration officials say they are committed to making power 
from photovoltaic technology as well as "solar thermal" systems 
competitive with other sources by 2015.

Alexander Karsner, the lead Energy Department official for renewable 
energy technology and efficiency, said the expanded use of 
photovoltaic cells could have its greatest impact by substantially 
reducing the energy thirst of new buildings.

To be sure, there are some promising signs in solar energy.

Big arrays of mirrors that concentrate sunlight to run turbines, 
which first emerged in the early 1980s, are resurgent in sun-baked 
places like the American Southwest, Spain and Australia. Some 
developers say this solar thermal technology is competitive now with 
power generated by natural gas when demand, and prices, hit periodic 

With more research, the solar thermal method might allow for storing 
energy. Currently, all solar power is hampered by a lack of storage 

"The scale on which things actually have to happen on energy is not 
fully either appreciated or transmitted to the public," said Dr. 
Lewis of Caltech. "You have to find a really cheap way to capture 
that light, for the price of carpet or paint, and also convert it 
efficiently into something humans can use for energy."

After more than two decades in which research on converting solar 
power to electricity largely lapsed, the Bush administration and 
lawmakers in Congress are now discussing more money for the field. 
Dr. Orbach said the Energy Department's proposed research plan for 
2008 to 2012 includes $1.1 billion for solar advances, more than the 
$896 million going toward fusion.

But many scientists, perhaps seasoned by past energy cycles, doubt 
that the new burst of interest is sufficient to lure the best young 
minds in chemistry and physics. After encouraging 346 research groups 
last year to seek grants for surmounting hurdles to harnessing solar 
power, the Energy Department this year ended up awarding $22.7 
million over three years to 27 projects - hardly the stuff of an 
energy revolution, several scientists said.

"There is plenty of intellectual firepower in the U.S.," said 
Prashant V. Kamat, an expert in the chemistry of solar cells at the 
University of Notre Dame, who has some Energy Department financing. 
"But there is limited encouragement to take up the challenge."