July 16, 2007
Solar Power Captures Imagination, Not Money
By ANDREW C. REVKIN and MATTHEW L. WALD
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.
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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 peaks.
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."