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News :: Technology
Lack of financing casts shadow on solar power
29 Jul 2007
The trade association for the U.S. 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. But many scientists, perhaps seasoned by past cycles, said that they doubt the new burst of interest is sufficient to draw the best young minds in chemistry and physics. After encouraging 346 research groups last year to seek government grants for surmounting hurdles to harnessing solar power, the Energy Department this year ended up awarding 27 projects worth $22.7 million over three years - hardly the stuff of an energy revolution, several scientists said.
By Andrew C. Revkin and Matthew L. Wald

Monday, July 16, 2007
NEW YORK

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 Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Million Solar Roofs" initiative is promoted as building a homegrown industry and fighting global warming.

But for all the enthusiasm about harvesting sunlight, some of the most ardent experts and investors in solar technologies say that moving this energy source from niche to mainstream - last year it provided less than 0.01 percent of the U.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.

Indeed, even a quarter century from now, said the U.S. Energy Department official in charge of renewable energy, solar power might account for, at best, 2 percent or 3 percent of the energy supply 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 the 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 photovoltaic silicon panels have soared, helping steadily drop manufacturing costs and leading to widespread product refinements.

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

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

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 flows has long received less spending, in the United States and other industrialized countries, than energy options with more political support.

For decades, conventional nuclear power and nuclear fusion received dominant shares of government energy-research money.

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

In this 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.

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

The U.S. 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 Lewis, head of a solar-research laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

Raymond Orbach, the under secretary of energy for science, said the administration's challenge is 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," Orbach said. "This is about a portfolio."

After more than two decades in which research on converting solar power to electricity largely lapsed, the Bush administration and lawmakers in Congress are seeking more money for solar energy science.

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 targeted at fusion in that span.

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

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

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