I would like to know about the future of solar energy
July 28, 2008 5:11 AM   Subscribe

I would like to know about the future of solar energy.

I want to know about the future potential/possibilities of solar energy over the coming century, and beyond... are there any books (preference) or websites that go over this in detail? Something scientific and thoroughly researched and not just a series of wild speculations.

Any help would be great!
posted by heylight to Science & Nature (16 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Try this article from the Economist a few weeks ago: Another Silicon Valley? The rise of solar energy in one form or another. The same issue contains review articles on other forms of renewable energy - with comparison prices against coal. In summary they believe solar is at the same stage of commercial development as wind was a decade ago.
posted by rongorongo at 5:33 AM on July 28, 2008

Technology or usage/infrastructure? Most of the technology isn't all that new. One of the most modern uses of solar power in Sevilla is based on a very old concept. The October 2007 issue of Civil Engineering details the construction and design of the computer-controlled solar collector tower.

Japan is planning to put a prototype of a new solar collection/generation facility in space by 2020. This space-based approach sounds like it could be the best option for major energy production in the future.
posted by JJ86 at 5:45 AM on July 28, 2008

SolarBuzz might be a good place to start, it's an industry portal that has links to news articles and information about companies involved in solar energy.

Also Wired regularly has articles about solar energy although these often fall more towards the speculative end of things than you might like. http://www.wired.com/search?query=solar+power&siteAlias=all&x=0&y=0
posted by electricinca at 5:48 AM on July 28, 2008

A scientific paper found via the Wired.com search I linked to above.
Solar thermal electricity as the primary replacement for coal and oil in U.S. generation and transportation.
posted by electricinca at 5:53 AM on July 28, 2008

Don Lancaster has done some excellent analysis of solar in terms of amortization, exergy, and other enlightening perspectives.

For example:

"By how many DECADES will the California 8 billion
dollar rathole fiasco SET BACK the development of
renewable and sustainable pv solar electricity?

Let's assume the 8 bil only costs 8 bil, rather than its
true triple cost after transfers and admin. And that
there are ten million of our pioneer panels from two
days ago in fact installed and working.

Our projected panel returns two cents of genuinely
renewable and sustatinable pv solar electricity per
kilowatt hour for eight cents of "old energy" gasoline-
in-disguise invested. A 400 watt panel would generate
about 2.5 kilowatt hours per day, or around five cents
worth of renewable and sustainable pv solar electricity.

At 300 effective days per year, each panel year would
generate $15 worth of renewable and sustainable
electricity per year. Ten million panels would thus
generate 150 million worth of renewable and sustainable
electricity per year.

8 billion divided by 150 million leaves 53.3 and change.
Thus, the California pv fiasco will likely set back the
development of renewable and sustainable pv electricity
by a grand total of 5.3 DECADES!

Assuming a zero interest rate, of course."

More recently:
Some More Energy Fundamentals — I
posted by dragonsi55 at 6:18 AM on July 28, 2008

BTB, "Some More Energy Fundamentals — I" is in pdf form.

Apologies to whom it may matter.
posted by dragonsi55 at 6:22 AM on July 28, 2008

The future is bright.


My thoughts on the future of electrical generation and transmission in this country are that as we move toward wind/sun power, we will need to build more/better power sharing "long haul" transmission lines to better share excess regional capacity. For when it's cloudy in California but sunny in Kansas.

As well as needing to get a LOT of power to the coasts for regular usage and for water desalination and also liquid fuel generation. Since clean water will be a future problem as well. And since that liquid fuel could be used to run peak power generators instead of coal.

There will be, I believe, more power storage technologies being used- use excess capacity to pump water up the hill during the day, and let it run downhill through turbines at night.

In addition, power will be more localized- people with the means will install solar/wind power in their homes with batteries to store up any locally generated excess power for use into the night. I even foresee the potential for power companies to subsidize these sorts of installations- it might be cost effective for them to do this rather than try to build a giant power plant that nobody wants in their backyard.
posted by gjc at 6:48 AM on July 28, 2008

These lectures from a course at Berkeley I've been listening to have a lot of good info:
posted by AvailableName at 8:13 AM on July 28, 2008

If you're interested in the cutting-edge of getting solar power financed and installed, one thing I'd read up on is the financing method Berkeley pioneered last fall, now officially allowed by state law. (I didn't look up the text of the city or state law, but I'd do that if you're really interested.)

Promoting local power removes some of the need for those long-haul transmission lines mentioned above (and the energy lost to resistance as it travels hundreds of miles).
posted by salvia at 8:33 AM on July 28, 2008

One of the top solar labs is:

Here is an old chart of solar efficiency created in the lab:
Chart of PV efficiency

After visiting this NREL and a few other labs the feeling I got is that right now solar panels are still way in the infant stage. The problem (as told to me by one of the top PV researchers at NREL) is that there are 2-3 competing ways of manufacturing solar panels and unfortunately there is no clear winner as to which way is the best. This is problematic since most manufacturers don't want to invest in technology that might turn out to be obsolete before the plant even comes on. What you can somewhat see from the chart of PV efficiency is that efficiency increases in bursts followed by a plateau which makes investors somewhat skittish. This is because there is a chance that the technology that is lagging behind today might jump up in 10% efficiency overnight since we are no where close to the projected maximum PV efficiency.

As for the future of energy, specifically America, it is probably going to be 80-90% fission (hopefully fusion) with solar/wind meeting the other 10%-20%. Right now DOE is pushing strong recently to get more nuclear reactors (we are actually starting to build more finally) out there and they have a pessimistic outlook on fusion specifically Tomahawk reactors (DOE believes that the National Ignitions Facility is currently our best chance for fusion).
DOE Advisor talks about future of energy

Solar unfortunately is never going to be the main way we produce energy due to energy density, cost to build a plant ect. If you look at nuclear price per KW its the lowest and most of the cost isn't to run the plant, it is all the legal red tape and hoops reactors need to jump through. The cost coupled with the fact that all our energy needs would be satisfied if we filled the room your sitting in with Uranium and fissioned it all means that solar power will probably never provide the bulk of our energy needs.
posted by metex at 9:03 AM on July 28, 2008

If you look at nuclear price per KW its the lowest and most of the cost isn't to run the plant, it is all the legal red tape and hoops reactors need to jump through. The cost coupled with the fact that all our energy needs would be satisfied if we filled the room your sitting in with Uranium and fissioned it all means that solar power will probably never provide the bulk of our energy needs.

Nuclear is not the answer and it has nothing to do with red tape. From page 9 of this DOE document:

Nuclear power is a second conceptually viable option. Producing 10 TW of nuclear power would require construction of a new one-gigawatt-electric (1-GWe) nuclear fission plant somewhere in the world every other day for the next 50 years. Once that level of deployment was reached, the terrestrial uranium resource base would be exhausted in 10 years. The required fuel would then have to be mined from seawater (requiring processing seawater at a rate equivalent to more than 1,000 Niagara Falls), or else breeder reactor technology would have to be developed and disseminated to countries wishing to meet their additional energy demand in this way.

The world currently uses 13 TW of energy annually, and this is predicted to double by 2050 and triple by 2100. There isn't nearly enough fissionable material on the planet to meet our needs. The answer lies in solar + wind + water energies. Everything else is a stopgap.
posted by overhauser at 10:00 AM on July 28, 2008

For starts nobody knows the future of solar energy over the next century. We're creating that future right now. Nobody can predict what changes in technology and society will come that far out.

Take people's confident assessments about energy issues with a big grain of salt. Life cycle type analysis is extraordinarily complicated and the sort of back-of-the-envelope calculations most people pull out to support their partisan preconceptions are worse than useless. I'm not saying don't read them or think about their arguments - but be discerning. Ask whether the source has vested interests and known prejudices. Do they have some sort of tangentially related "main interest" that their positions on energy just happen to support (e.g., people who are thoroughly convinced that modern society is on the skids towards collapse always just happen to have decided that the assessments that say alternative energy can't satisfy modern energy demands are the correct assessments. Of course they would not agree with this presentation of the disposition of their beliefs. Complicated).

Do you account for the political cost of maintaining our oil supply when you compare energy costs? How? Good luck getting a hard, non-partisan number on that. But its ridiculous to suggest it isn't an honest factor. A common and I think reasonable issue against pro-solar assessments is that they don't account the environmental costs of infrastructure production.

Likewise, energy issues are big news all of the sudden and I try to maintain a healthy skepticism of all the mainstream news entities sudden interest in and assessment of alternative energy systems. These are largely newcomers to the field and their opinions are not necessarily the most reliable.

If you're really interested in solar I'd dig into pretty conventional sources (alphabet soup time)- ASES, ISES, EERE, SEI, SEIA. As somebody above noted NREL is a decent source (that link is a good starting point, but there is more depth available on NREL's sites. Some of these sources are clearly more partisan than others. But you'll end up getting to the important topics and resources through these.

Solar is a big, complicated topic that goes far beyond photovoltaic cells. It's very interesting and very multidisciplinary, but it attracts a lot of partisan fervor on both sides. I've been studying it (mostly as an amateur but back in the 90's as a academic and later a research professional a couple years here and there) for 15 years and think its prospects have been getting steadily better, but it is still on a long (decades scale) development curve to become a significant element in the global energy picture, though issues of technological developments and economic and political pressures definitely make the future hard to predict.
posted by nanojath at 10:38 AM on July 28, 2008

Note: Take the Don Lancaster stuff with a grain of salt - it's founded on false (or at least highly arguable) assumptions that energy costing more than the monetary cost of same energy from cheap oil of years past is wasted money and opportunity.
posted by -harlequin- at 10:49 AM on July 28, 2008

In response to overhauser:

DOE usually assumes a once pass through life cycle meaning we throw away 99-96% of our nuclear fuel to avoid making materials that can be used as nuclear weapons. Building multiple 1GWe reactors is a good way to waste fuel since getting a reactor critical is why you need 100+kg of Uranium in order to burn up 0.5kg of it. Once you hit critical the difference between a 1 GWe and a 10 GWe reactor is... nothing.

The only reasons why we dont run all of our 1GWe reactors at 10 GWe is because
1. The cooling system was originally designed to cool a reactor that produced 5GWt not 50 GWt. As a side note most nuclear reactors due increase the energy they produce once they prove to the NRC that it is safe to increase the power output. This happens enough that during the time when we banned new nuclear reactor construction we gained an average of 10 new reactors every year from increase output.

2. There needs to be an extremely generous safety buffer in case of anything that could theoretically happen from all your coolant disappearing in a blink of an eye to someone trying to intentionally turn the reactor into a nuclear bomb.

Theoretically if we ever found materials that had a horrible neutron absorption cross section and didnt melt below(taking a somewhat educated guess) 4-6k degrees, and could make a system that moved heat fast enough we could run our current 1GWe reactors at 1TWe steady state using the current fuel in there.
posted by metex at 1:26 PM on July 28, 2008

I work in the photovoltaics field, frequently with NREL. If you decide to dig into the NREL publications, I recommend the work of energy analyst Robert Margolis.

A good book to read is Solar Revolution by Travis Bradford. He is very grounded in real data, and his think tank, the Prometheus Institute, is one of the more credible thought leaders in solar. His vision of distributed solar energy becoming the economical solution in all electricity markets is a plausible scenario. I agree with nanojath that there are many possible scenarios that could become the future. Right now is a very tumultuous time for energy, and the end trajectory is very unclear.

I also support the recommendation of reading The Economist's articles on solar.

Sidenote: I must respectfully disagree with some of metex's comments regarding his/her impression of NREL's work, and for that matter, the state of progress in photovoltaic technology. It's misleading to look at rate of change in that efficiency graph and draw conclusions about the ability of photovoltaic manufacturers to respond. A new jump in efficiency as represented in that graph would not necessarily mean the death-knell for a company, in fact, the companies might consider the advance irrelevant in many cases. Here's one reason why that might be the case: Right now there is a race to get low cost, reliable photovoltaics products into the market and grab market share. Time to market and ease of scaling up manufacturing is very important. A company might see less benefit in incorporating an efficiency improvement if it meant it would take a long time to shake out the manufacturing lines, or put them at the beginning of the line for product certification (with UL for example). There are many ways of decreasing the cost of PV electricity without even touching the efficiency which might be easier for a company-- for example, decreasing the part of the cost that comes from installing the system on a building, using a less expensive material to make an equally (or sometimes even less) efficient PV module, or putting sensors in the manufacturing that can predict the product's efficiency while a company ramps the speed of production. NREL's been very savvy about this new, accelerated race, and has shifted away from tiny, hard-to-make cells with record efficiency (the points on that graph) to doing R&D on PV improvements that could more easily be incorporated into companies' manufacturing.

Anybody who read this far, thanks! :)

posted by akabobo at 3:16 PM on July 28, 2008

Lots of interesting energy projects where I work. But if I had to guess, I'd say the future is brightest for Sunshine to Petrol and the non-solar pulsed power projects.

The newer projects are the solar concentrators, which Stirling Energy is building in California.
posted by answergrape at 8:10 PM on July 28, 2008

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