I am quite positive about the future of alternative energy because technological progress is currently on a torrid pace, but that doesn’t mean there are not a few major bumps in the road to be concerned with. I have mentioned before how the ongoing world-wide recession is causing cutbacks in government subsidies even as the price of solar panels are coming down. Private industry has its fair share of difficulty as well.
Recently, two large, respected, international companies, Bosch and Siemens, pulled out of a plan to turn much of north Africa in to a solar power “hot spot”. The initiative is called Desertec and still has plenty of backers, but it is a bad sign when the most high profile companies pull out. I suspect that the cost was too high or the potential profit was too low and therein lies the biggest roadblock to more alternative energy adoption. No it is NOT because of the intermittent nature of alternative sources – it is the cost. It is almost always the cost. If there was a guaranteed profit, even a very small percentage, Siemens and Bosch would still be in the project because there is a nice side effect of positive press to be gained by sticking with it.
Cost is definitely a problem here in the U.S. A recent study found that the cost of installing solar panels in the U.S. is almost TWICE what it is in Germany! The main reasons for the discrepancy – you guessed it – an intolerable tangle of federal, state, and local regulations. Another significant part of the excessive cost is the high price that installers charge to set-up/hook-up solar panels. I think it is a sad commentary about the U.S. – that Germany has the political and economic will to reduce regulations and cost for installing solar power whereas the U.S. does not. That doesn’t mean that the private sector is not giving it a try. Mosaic, based out of Oakland, is trying crowd-funding as a way to jump start small-scale solar projects. They are asking for $25 dollar donations which will be pooled for solar panel installations at apartment complexes, schools, and the like. I applaud the effort and suggest some larger donations from the “loudest” wealthy environmentalists (as I have done before). Very wealthy (some people would say “obscenely wealthy”) actors, politicians, and professors that continually back the policies to force ”the masses” to cut back on fossil fuels (and a comfortable living), should instead make a real sacrifice and give a lot more money to alternative energy projects. Instead of jet-setting around the world, wearing expensive clothes, sipping high-brow coffee, tapping out messages on an over-priced I-phone, and relaxing in their multi-million dollar mansions, they should be donating more money to projects like what Mosaic supports – that is – if they really cared about the environment and AGW. If they really cared, they could make a big difference. They might be poorer, but the natural environment would be a lot richer.
On the technical side, there is still plenty of good news surrounding solar. Progress continues and we should see benefits in the way of lower price and efficiency gains year after year. One of the more dramatic advances recently was the new world record for solar concentrating multi-junction solar cell. The company Solar Junction has produced such a cell with 43.5 percent efficiency. What is even more positive is that this is not some development in a lab that is still years away from commercial applications. It is pretty much ready to go now. As far as storing the intermittent energy of solar cells (and wind turbines) new battery technology shows signs of progress. Stanford researchers are exploring sulphur-lithium batteries that could store 5 times as much energy as traditional lithium-ion batteries. Read more here about how they are using nanotechnology to achieve those ends.
In the mean time, before all these wondrous new technologies arrive, it looks like the U.S. could continue to help the world’s environment by continuing to use more natural gas in manufacturing and heavy industries. The cheaper and more efficient natural gas could draw more manufacturing back into the U.S., thus reducing the emissions from older more polluting factories in other parts of the world. And, believe it or not, there is still room to improve the ol’ reliable – the internal combustion engine. Achates Power is working on a multi-cylinder version of the Junker engine, which could be 50% or more efficient than current engines.
Have a good Thursday! Meteorologist Justin Loew.
This post was written by jloew on January 17, 2013