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Solar power and advanced technology startups — they don’t call it bleeding edge for nothing

September 23, 2011

With respect to solar energy, it really is all about the cost.  When the average utility customer flips the light switch they don’t really care whether the electricity is generated by coal, nuclear, solar or hydroelectric.  They want two things:  for the light to come on, and for it to cost them as little as possible.  A very small percentage of those utility customers might be genuinely committed  to cleaner and greener power sources, and be willing to pay more for it, and a somewhat larger percentage might feel good about energy from renewable sources  in a general, abstract sort of way. But the overwhelming majority just want their lights, appliances, and gadgets to work, as cheaply as possible.

So for solar to be more widely adopted, it absolutely has to achieve grid parity.  Grid parity is the point at which solar energy is no more expensive to generate per watt than the average of more conventional sources of energy on the grid.  That number is often set at $1 per watt, depending on how one approaches the math.

The Solyndra debacle has put a spotlight on the tendency of startup companies with new technology to crash and burn. I have no idea whether the company is guilty of anything beyond irrational expectations for the marketability and profitability for their product, although the fact that Solyndra’s officials are taking the Fifth Amendment isn’t a promising indicator.

After the dust settles on the political and legal controversy around Solyndra, though, a question remains which, to me, is more important with respect to energy policy  than the dysfunctional political situation here in the U.S.  That question is whether Solyndra’s particular solar technology is worth pursuing.

The conventional solar panel consists of a grid of 6″ X 6″ flat tiles arranged in panels.  Solyndra’s  approach consisted of racks of cylindrical tubes.  Their claim was that the racks could be mounted horizontally, packed together more closely than traditional panels, and could collect both direct and indirect light, thereby collecting more sunlight, and converting it to more electricity, than conventional flat panels.

The brutal truth is that many interesting technologies never get adequately applied and tested in a real world production environment. due to combinations of under-capitalization,  resistance to change in the market,  the necessity of trial-and-error (and its inefficiencies) in new and uncharted production and marketing territory,  competition, and just plain bad luck.

New and cutting edge technology which succeeds is the exception, not the rule.

That being said, I love poring  through the articles in MIT’s  Technology Review,  IEEE’s Spectrum, and Inhabit to read about the cutting edge in energy technology.

A few recent articles include  Three Dimensional Design Leads to Better Solar Cells in Technology Review,  Nanopillars on Surface of Thin-Film Silicon Could Lead to Better Solar Cells, from Spectrum, and Solar Decathlon Opens in Washington DC from Inhabit.

I just try not to get too disappointed when most of the excellent work showcased in the articles never even make it to market, much less achieve widespread adoption.

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