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Friday, March 18, 2011

The Solar Wake-Up Call From Fukushima

The recent and ongoing crisis at the Fukushima nuclear facility is a bitter addendum to Japan's earthquake tragedy. For the past week, I've followed the national headlines, engaged in several Facebook discussions, and watched the American politicians waste no time drawing their ideological battle lines on nuclear energy. Nothing about this situation is pleasant.

What amazes me, though, is how little, if any, attention is being paid to the obvious. The current debate seems to be about whether or not we should have nuclear energy, as if a "no" answer would result in America shutting down all of its reactors tomorrow. This simply isn't going to happen. Nineteen percent of our energy comes from nuclear, and regardless of how old and over-capacity those generators may be, there is no way we're going to shut them down with gasoline already over $3.50 per gallon.

The flip side of the debate seems to ask, "Are we going to build more generators? Because we obviously need more energy, and nobody wants to increase dependency on oil." This sets up an all-or-nothing dilemma. Either we shut the reactors down or we commit to nuclear and build more reactors.

Not once have I heard someone in the media say, "We obviously need more energy, yes. But it's going to take seven to 10 years to bring new reactors online. Why don't we take all of the money we were going to spend on new nuclear production, take a fraction of it to ensure that our least safe reactors are functioning well within safety specs, and use the remaining billions to fund a massive wave of U.S.-bred solar energy tech development?"

The knee-jerk reaction is that solar photovoltaic technology simply isn't efficient enough to provide sufficient energy to be cost-efficient. But such reactions are based on today's efficiencies and fabrication methods. Consider the following chart pulled from Wikipedia, derived from the Mott MacDonald June 2010 UK Electricity Generation Costs Update:

Technology↓Cost range (£/MWh)↓
New nuclear55-85
Onshore wind80-110
Natural gas turbines with CO2 capture60-130
Coal with CO2 capture100-155
Solar farms125-180
Offshore wind150-210
Natural gas turbine, no CO2 capture55-110
Tidal power155-390

As you can see, solar has roughly twice the cost of nuclear today. But photovoltaics remain a largely silicon-based technology, just like microprocessors, and thus solar cell fabrication benefits from many of the same improvements seen in computing. Take Silicon Valley-based Solar Junction, which recently announced that it had achieved 41% efficiency from a production cell by implementing multiple layers within the cell, each designed to absorb a different part of the sun's spectrum. In contrast, most solar panels today only offer 15% to 20% efficiency. If we suddenly double the generation efficiency of solar panels, what do you suppose happens to the cost of solar energy?

In case that seems like a fluke, consider excerpts from two of the interviews in "Architects of Tomorrow, Volume 1":

Famed scientist and inventor Kay Kurzweil notes, "We have 10,000 times more sunlight than we need to meet 100% of our energy needs. The total amount of solar energy we are producing is doubling every two years, and we are only eight doublings away from meeting all of our energy needs."

Even if we had to wait for two, even three, of these generations, isn't that still faster than we could bring on a new crop of nuclear reactors -- and with no hazardous waste or increased risk of radioactive materials falling into the wrong hands? Where is the national security risk inherent in solar technology? Ah, right...there isn't one.

Then consider Greg Nielson, Lead Researcher, Sandia National Laboratories. Nielson heads the team that developed "glitter." Glitter is, as he describes it, "these little thin crystalline silicon PV cells that can measure only one-quarter of a millimeter in diameter." Imagine specks of dust that are actually solar cells. One of the Sandia group's guiding visions is being able to blend these glitter cells into paint and have ordinary structures gather and store energy.

"With the solar cells we showed off last December [2009], we were showing up to around 15% efficiency," says Nielson. "We expect to go higher. But the key thing is that as your efficiency goes up, the costs of almost every component in your system, from wiring to racking to installation labor, are driven down. ... Researchers have shown PV efficiencies up to 40% or more, but the modules you buy are typically around 15%, because increasing efficiency above 15% costs more and more money. We need to figure out how to take advantage of high-efficiency materials, like crystalline silicon, gallium arsenide, indium gallium phosphide, and lower the cost of those materials while still taking advantage of the high efficiency they provide. That’s the hard part. But that’s exactly where we’ve been trying to make progress. And I think we’re really on to something.

"Based on our initial cost models," Nielson adds, "it appears that our ‘solar glitter’ approach to solar power has the potential to become cost competitive with fossil fuels. This is partly a result of significantly reducing the cost of materials, particularly expensive semiconductors, in a solar module and partly a result of improved performance and new functionality in the modules. These cost and performance improvements result from taking advantage of scaling benefits that occur as solar cells are significantly reduced in size."

With such advances being made, why isn't the Fukushima tragedy being viewed as a wake-up call to help these researchers make even greater strides? Why are we persisting in this ridiculous, polarized nuclear energy argument when it's clear that this energy "solution" from the 1950s no longer deserves relevance in the 21st century? Let existing reactors run their course, but put further infrastructure investments where they belong: in solar energy. 


  1. I hear ya William.


  2. While off-topic from the solar discussion, it's difficult to discuss Fukushima without having radiation in the same sentence. A lot of people have been worried about whether or not the reactor crises pose a threat to those of us on the West Coast. If you're curious about this, my cousin just sent me this fascinating chart: http://xkcd.com/radiation