Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Solar Energy and the Technology Disintermediation Step

I'm no fan of jargon but I couldn't resist putting "Technology Disintermediation Step" in the title. Before we go further, here's the Reuter's article where it appeared:
BP (BP.L) CEO Tony Hayward said on Wednesday solar power technology was unlikely to ever be competitive with more conventional energy sources.

That much of the article is clear, even if it's probably wrong. If the reader would like to see where "technology disintermediation step" is used, feel free to follow the link. It's techno-babble, of course, and even in context it still doesn't make much sense. Translated, I suppose it means, "Solar power is too hard, the technology is slippery, we don't like putting research dollars into it. Besides, we're lazy and would rather stick with oil. Anyway, it's more profitable in the short term. We think." That may not give the entire picture but it's clearer than "technology disintermediation step."

The problem with conventional energy sources is that they're in danger of requiring increasing amount of unconventional behavior to get them. Here's a Moscow Times article that reminds us how expensive 'conventional' oil can get:
Russia's security is threatened by economic instability, potential wars over energy resources and foreign spies, the Kremlin said in a key policy paper released Wednesday.

(snip)

"With the ongoing competition for resources, attempts to use military force to solve emerging problems cannot be excluded — and this might destroy the balance of forces on Russia's and its allies' borders," the paper states.

Forget for a moment Russian paranoia about spies. The point is that Russia is yet another country that believes that diminishing oil reserves may lead to wars. In a sense, the war in Iraq is an oil war and an expensive at that. The plain truth is that the war in Iraq is a contributing factor in last year's economic meltdown.

So, according to CEO Tony Hayward, oil will be competitive with solar energy (I assume he means photovoltaic or various hybrid systems that use photovoltaic). Perhaps he's right, if BP can somehow detach itself from its responsibilities and from society at large. That's not a bad strategy since it's a strategy that has been used successfully by major corporations with increasing frequency over the last thirty years. But that model is dying. The simple fact is that the world cannot afford such self-absorbed corporate thinking. We have already paid dearly for such thinking. Now here's the check in BP's long-term thinking, if such thinking can be said to exist: the world may indeed fight over oil. But it will not fight over the sun (okay, we may fight over rare elements necessary for cheap and efficient photovoltaic cells, but the sun will still be there until we figure out better systems). Simply put, war is a drag on the world's economy and well-being. Somehow we need to get companies like BP to plug such facts into their bottom line.

At the moment, things like windmills are far more efficient than solar energy based on photovoltaic cells. It's possible that will always be the case but there are many places where windmills are not practical or where solar cells offer advantages. I'm not an expert on research in solar energy but I have watched the field since the 1970s. I have never felt research money has been available for solar energy at a level consistent with its potential. The most annoying thing about solar energy research is the short-sightedness of the American government since the departure of Jimmy Carter. In many areas of alternative energy, it's continental Europeans who are now the leaders, not Americans (and not even the British). Could that be changing? Maybe. There's much talk in Washington about energy research but it's hard to know what the actual facts are yet. But here's an encouraging sign:
A new class of ultra-light, high-efficiency solar cells developed by the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory has won a national prize for the commercialization of federally funded research.

The Inverted Metamorphic Multijunction, IMM, Solar Cell was named a winner of the 2009 Award for Excellence in Technology Transfer by the Federal Laboratory Consortium for Technology Transfer. These multijunction cells consist of multiple thin films in layers that allow the cell to capture more of the solar spectrum and convert it into electricity.

As just one example, I can visualize the upper three feet of street lamps being coated with such materials with one of the new efficient batteries inside powering a low energy light. That would be a vast improvement over turning off the streetlights which is now happening in my own city and in many cities around the country.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous solar panels said...

Solar energy is definitely human's future.

9:56 PM  
Blogger Craig said...

Okay, here's a question. When I see them and I get to it, I eliminate comments that seem irrelevant to the post, particularly when they look like spam. What do I do with something innocuous like "solar panels"? It's a company that makes solar panels in China. That sort of makes it relevant to the post. Should I eliminate these guys anyway?

11:18 PM  

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