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More Good News For Solar

That little orange dot has been the source of most energy ever consumed by mankind, and was the primary source long before we discovered the remains of dinosaurs could fuel our cars. This morning, Glenn Reynolds linked to this bit of news from Popular Science regarding a discovery that could lead to greater efficiencies in solar cells:

MIT engineers have recently helped up the feasibility of widespread solar power by developing a new “solar concentrator.” The concentrator, which is a flat glass panel spread across a large area, gathers light at the edges of its surface. Expensive solar cells only need to sit on these borders — a difference that lowers costs and increases efficiency by 10 to 15 percent.

Scientists rerouted light to the panel’s edges by painting the surface with two or more organic dyes. By joining forces, these dyes absorb light from different wavelengths, thus harnessing as much power as possible. The panels can even be placed on existing solar-power systems — which could increase each cell’s power-capturing ability by 50 percent.

This is just one more bit of good news in an increasing series of good news for the future promise of solar energy. Solar cell prices are on a downward trend, Google plans on building a solar thermal plants, and companies all over the place are developing new techniques for cheaply manufacturing solar cells.

When you couple the advances in solar energy with the possibility that wind power could be providing up to 20% of power output in the U.S. over the next 20 years, there’s a lot of good news here. The best part about solar, from my perspective, is that as solar cells get cheaper, there’s a great opportunity for them to supplement the grid through sheer ubiquity. If energy from coal and natural gas keep going up while solar cells get cheaper and more efficient, you’re going to see a lot more solar cells on rooftops. That’s a good thing.

Photo: Chance Gardener’s photostream

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About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp writes about pretty much everything under the sun, including politics, art, religion, philosophy, sports, music, culture, and science.

Comments

  1. Michael says:

    Every 6 months or so we hear a story about a breakthrough in photovoltaic technology that promises everything from a 50% increase to a 50x increase. However, I have yet to see any of those actually make it to market. Cheap manufacturing, dye layering, flexible film collectors, they’ve been talking about them for years, but where are they?

    Any regular here knows that I’m a proponent of alternative energy, but even I’m getting tired of waiting for our magical solar ponies to arrive.

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  2. Alex Knapp says:

    I work in an office powered almost exclusively by wind and solar, so I guess I see this stuff–right now.

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  3. Dave Schuler says:

    Solar power has just been on the horizon for, basically, my entire lifetime. It may be that the recent increases in oil prices will have caused it to reach the tipping point. We’ll see.

    I suspect there’s more promise in concentrating solar energy and using it to generate power the old-fashioned way by using the heat to convert water to steam and push turbines than by direct conversion. We’re pretty good at storing heat; not nearly so good at storing electricity.

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  4. Hoodlumman says:

    Unfortunately, Alex, you are the exception to the rule. T Boone Pickens is building a billion dollar wind farm in my home state of Texas but wind power is still not economically viable these days without significant subsidization.

    But technology does make things cheaper and I believe that wind and solar (and nuclear) will be the power sources of the future… one day.

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  5. Eric says:

    Uh-oh, Bithead and the other ostriches with their heads buried in the sand are gonna be hoppin’ mad! They’re answer to the oil crisis was more drilling, in ANWR, offshore, your backyard, Michael Jackson’s fantasy park, etc.

    Maybe if we promise to power the drills with solar energy they’ll jump on board…

    LOL

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  6. John425 says:

    Solar power hasn’t a chance on a macro scale. You just try to use some desert land for a 10 square mile solar farm and you’ll find yourself bogged down with 50 years of environmental protests and “reviews”.
    Energy independence and progress has to be made on all fronts and that includes drilling for oil.

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  7. Michael says:

    Solar power hasn’t a chance on a macro scale.

    Solar scales incredibly well in parallel, though. Putting 2 meter square panels on 50,000 homes produces the same coverage. You can’t do similar parallel production with coal, hydro or current nuclear technology. Even wind power can’t be parallelized that easily.

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  8. Steve Plunk says:

    A hundred 1% solutions. We should do everything all at once. Solar, wind, nuclear, oil shale, drilling, it all helps and it helps in all different ways.

    I support all of these and throw in conservation to boot. Now if we can get the lefties to support all the options we might see some progress.

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  9. anjin-san says:

    Solar power hasn’t a chance on a macro scale.

    Actually, there is significant solar development underway in desert areas of California as we speak…

    As for drilling, well the Bush family did block that for a long time.

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  10. Michael says:

    A hundred 1% solutions. We should do everything all at once. Solar, wind, nuclear, oil shale, drilling, it all helps and it helps in all different ways.

    Too many solutions, and not enough money. You spread it that thin and none of them will produce anything.

    Pick one you know works in the near-term (oil/coal), one that will likely work “well enough” in the mid-term (solar), and one that is difficult but with a big payout in the long-term (fusion), that would be my recommendation.

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  11. Bithead says:

    Every 6 months or so we hear a story about a breakthrough in photovoltaic technology that promises everything from a 50% increase to a 50x increase. However, I have yet to see any of those actually make it to market. Cheap manufacturing, dye layering, flexible film collectors, they’ve been talking about them for years, but where are they?

    About ten years down the road.

    Hmmm Wait a tick; isn’t that the same amount of time we were told it’d take for oil prices to drop if we started drilling today?

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  12. Grewgills says:

    Commercial scale solar power is underway in California, Florida, Israel, Japan, and elsewhere. It might not be so far away as you think.

    Solar for water heating will work virtually anywhere in the US and will save money over the long term*.

    Personal solar with grid backup for electricity will work most places and generally saves money over the long term*.

    * less than 15 years, much less in the case of water heating.

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  13. Michael says:

    Commercial scale solar power is underway in California, Florida, Israel, Japan, and elsewhere. It might not be so far away as you think.

    Where in Florida?

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  14. Michael says:

    About ten years down the road.

    I wish, 10 years would be wonderful, they’re more likely going to take longer than that.

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  15. Steve Plunk says:

    Good point Michael. If we spread thing too thin we may not see results. But let’s think about drilling, oil shale, and nuclear. These don’t take investment by government but rather government getting out of the way.

    The government investment could be limited to alternative energy sources. Perhaps instead of just funding projects research prizes could be offered along with royalties to entice private investment.

    The issue to me is we should not limit ourselves but look in all direction without barriers. The left wants to only look at alternative energy while ignoring traditional sources. This is just nonsense and likely to damage the economy. Speaker Pelosi and her cohorts are leading us down that path of irreversible harm.

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  16. Michael says:

    But let’s think about drilling, oil shale, and nuclear.

    Drilling is definitely a good option when we need it, I’m still not convinced that we _need_ extra drilling at this point in time. Investing in extra oil sources means that we have an incentive to keep using those sources to get the most return out of the investment, instead of shifting out economy somewhere else. I worry that extra drilling now will just push off the energy crisis to a time when extra drilling is no longer an option.

    I don’t know what additional infrastructure and process goes into processing oil shale, so that may or may not be a good option.

    The problem with nuclear is almost entirely infrastructure at this point. We can’t just produce more Uranium (which is hard enough on it’s own), but we have to produce more reactors and facilities to burn it in.

    These don’t take investment by government but rather government getting out of the way.

    In a way it does, because the government is giving up land.

    The issue to me is we should not limit ourselves but look in all direction without barriers. The left wants to only look at alternative energy while ignoring traditional sources.

    I agree with you on this, even if I am currently opposed to new drilling.

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  17. Bithead says:

    The issue to me is we should not limit ourselves but look in all direction without barriers. The left wants to only look at alternative energy while ignoring traditional sources.

    AHA! And therein, I think lies the key; Letting everyone scramble and letting the market work. It’s the one thing we’ve not tried.

    It always amazes me; Energy is regulated and taxed in every possible way, from dead Dino to gas tank… and yet there are some who still insist on suggesting we’re dealing with free market forces.

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  18. Michael says:

    AHA! And therein, I think lies the key; Letting everyone scramble and letting the market work. It’s the one thing we’ve not tried.

    Actually that’s pretty much what we’ve been trying for a while now. Right now, oil is the best solution for the market, and so it is what the market promotes.

    The problem is that what is best for the market isn’t always what’s best for the people. In this case, the market has to be smart enough to sacrifice short-term gains in anticipation of long-term pains, but that requires a commitment from the entire market, because if any one player decides to take that short-term gain everybody loses.

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  19. Alex Knapp says:

    The problem is that what is best for the market isn’t always what’s best for the people. In this case, the market has to be smart enough to sacrifice short-term gains in anticipation of long-term pains, but that requires a commitment from the entire market, because if any one player decides to take that short-term gain everybody loses.

    Which is why we need, ideally, a carbon tax or, less ideally, a cap and trade system for carbon.

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  20. Grewgills says:

    Where in Florida?

    There should be three locations.

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  21. Wayne says:

    The FPL is so proud of their plan that they won’t even answer the question of how much more it will cost than using natural gas.

    Red flags go up with me anytime someone refuses to answer questions they know.Remind me of snake oil salesman.

    Solar is about like fusion. Many promises not many results. I do see promise (sorry) in its use for water heating. As for cost effective conversion to electricity, I’m not holding my breath.

    I’m not sold on nuclear since even the great France can’t find a solution to the waste by-product. Normandy is an accident just waiting to happen. Wind is becoming viable though.

    It cracks me up when those who oppose drilling since it might reduce prices and think we need new taxes so the price will stay high or go higher. That way it will encourage people to use less.

    So basically they are saying that they are happy with high energy prices and don’t mind hurting the economy.

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  22. anjin-san says:

    those who oppose drilling since it might reduce prices

    You mean the Bush ban on drilling? Why did GW wait 7.5 years to do something about it? Because it might reduce prices and cost the Saudis some $$$?

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  23. Steve Plunk says:

    anjin-san,

    The “Bush ban on drilling” as it call it is nothing of the sort. The executive order was put into place many years ago when oil was cheap and offshore drilling not likely. The congressional ban is where the real hurdle is at. The Presidents lifting of the ban is symbolic and wouldn’t have done anything 7.5 years ago.

    It’s silly to blame the President for this. Pelosi, Reid, et al are to blame.

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  24. Michael says:

    It’s silly to blame the President for this. Pelosi, Reid, et al are to blame.

    Or praise, depending on which side of the debate you’re on.

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  25. Grewgills says:

    The “Bush ban on drilling” as it call it is nothing of the sort.

    How so?
    If congress had lifted the ban and the executive order was left in place would drilling be allowed?
    Unless the answer is yes they were both real hurdles.

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  26. Bithead says:

    In this case, the market has to be smart enough to sacrifice short-term gains in anticipation of long-term pains, but that requires a commitment from the entire market, because if any one player decides to take that short-term gain everybody loses.

    You have this EXACTLY backwards.
    The market went for Horses.
    A realtive few people invented automobiles.

    Get the picture?
    Let the market do it’s thing. And please don’t tell me that’s what’s been happening. Given the degree of governmental intrusion into the market… where everything is regulated and taxed, a free market this most certainly is not.

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  27. Bithead says:

    Uh-oh, Bithead and the other ostriches with their heads buried in the sand are gonna be hoppin’ mad! They’re answer to the oil crisis was more drilling, in ANWR, offshore, your backyard, Michael Jackson’s fantasy park, etc.

    Ya know, it annoys me that nobody else noticed that Solar power, for all of it’s uses does not address the energy needs for oil. Is solar going to solve transporation, for example? No….
    Wanna use solar? Fine, I’ve no problem with it coming on line as the market finds it works.. both technically and economically. But please, I’m begging ya… quit tying solar, geothermal etc to the crisis create by our unwillingness to drill for oil domestically. They have nothing to do with each other, unless you’re going to tell us that we have a lot of electric generation going on fueled by oil.

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  28. Michael says:

    Ya know, it annoys me that nobody else noticed that Solar power, for all of it’s uses does not address the energy needs for oil. Is solar going to solve transporation, for example? No….

    Why not? Once you’ve got energy that can produce work, you can do whatever you want with it.

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  29. Bithead says:

    If that were true, we’d all be driving electric cars right now. (Hint: We’re not)

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  30. Michael says:

    If that were true, we’d all be driving electric cars right now. (Hint: We’re not)

    Who said they have to be electric cars?

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  31. Wayne says:

    I surprise this thread is still alive. FYI, there are petroleum power electrical plants although they are a small percentage. http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/epa/epat4p1.html

    However converting energy to electrical or other technologies such as fuel cell has been shown to be inefficient. It would save more gas if you simply use gas in your vehicle than using these alternative methods. If there weren’t petroleum power electrical plants then one could argue it would save on oil consumption but as it stands now it is increasing oil consumption.

    There are foreseeable problems with some of these technologies when they reach a massive scale. The chemicals use with batteries in electric cars will cause manufacturing issues including pollution and additional health hazards during accidents. Wind power will at some point cause weather pattern changes. Right now it is not really noticeable but at what point that it will is not really define. Will it make much of a difference, I don’t know.

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  32. Bithead says:

    there are petroleum power electrical plants although they are a small percentage.

    Correct. Notice also, where they exist; California.

    As for the rest of your comments, they’re also correct. The concept of unintended consequences rears it’s head every time.

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