Solar Energy Desperately Seeking Research Money

In an great overview article today, "Solar Power Wins Enthusiasts but Not Money", Andrew Revkin and Matthew Wald review the sorry state of funding for solar energy research, in contrast with the very wide base of public support. Solar energy was the top choice of Americans for our primary source of electricity in 15 years in a survey conducted by the Nuclear Power Industry! And yet:
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.

[Also posted at DailyKos

What's behind the discrepancy? Solar power still costs far too much - 5 to 10 times more than the alternatives. And one likely reason - funding levels for research in the technology have never been restored to the billion-dollar Carter levels since the Reagan cuts of 1981:

The NY Times article doesn't go into the price issue too much, but I've long been fascinated by this picture from the Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration on historical costs for photovoltaic modules:

(original available from a year-2000 research report on renewables technology).

Notice a few things about that cost curve. First, solar module prices these days are still almost $5 per peak watt, even now in 2007. That price has gone up and down a dollar or so in recent years, but basically have been flat (admittedly that's a slight improvement in constant-dollar terms for the past 2 decades).

And second, the billion dollars the Carter administration threw into PV research in just those few years coincided with a price drop of at least a factor of 4.

So we've had stagnation in prices for 20 years while very little money has gone into research, but 30 years ago when the government had a first big bout of PV research investment, prices dropped significantly.

Just a coincidence? It can't possible hurt to try the experiment again, and see if a few billion dollars a year in PV research won't revolutionize the energy industry this time. Or maybe that's what some oil-men are afraid of...

Created: 2007-07-16 11:53:44 by Arthur Smith