Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Road Not Taken

In June of 1979, President Jimmy Carter made a dedication speech honoring the scientific achievement and proactive governmental involvement in the construction of solar thermal panels on the top of the White House. The 32 panel, $28,000 solar thermal energy system was anemic from an engineering standpoint, boasting the capability to supply hot water to the White House only during meteorologically favorable conditions, but paramount from a symbolic point of view. The press conference was a portentous occasion being the first (and last) on the roof of the West Wing, and more importantly because it marked a categorical shift in the environmental attitude of the United States Executive Branch. Carter was launching a "sweeping drive" to restructure America's energy portfolio - 20% of US energy consumption to be supplied by renewable sources of energy by 2000.

In a moment of idealogical clairvoyance, Carter admonished:
This dependence on foreign sources of oil is of great concern to all of us. In the year 2000, this solar water heater behind me, which is being dedicated today, will still be here supplying cheap, efficient energy. A generation from now, this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it can be just a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people.

In a move no less symbolic, and sharpened by its irony, Reagan removed the system in 1981.

We've happened upon the proverbial fork in the Road, and not taken it.

Today, the US energy portfolio is comprised of 0.07% solar thermal and photovoltaic energy, but the industry shows signs of promise, especially compared to other renewable technologies (see below).

Thin-film technology, the next generation of PV cells, have the potential to reduce production costs by a factor of 10 or more without major efficiency losses. With the volatility of the crude oil market and continued "quick-learn" solar market characteristics due to technological breakthroughs, there may very well be Another Dawn for Solar Power. Currently, the PV market grows by roughly 30% per annum with an associated 0.8 experience factor (a doubling in PV market activity corresponds to an 80% price reduction per peak Watt). With even limited government incentives for PV installations in the form of tax rebates, feed-in tariffs, etc. the market can be catalyzed forward. The Japanese and German governments have been stellar performers in solar energy policy enactments - in Germany, a 350% increase in installed PV Wattage has occurred since 1995. Austin Energy already has such an incentive program: "Austin Energy offers customers one of the country's best solar photovoltaic rebates, at $4.50 per watt. This pays between 45% and 75% of the cost of installing a system."

Carter's words hold all of the relevance of their contextual climate even now and speak to the Baby-Boomer Generation's failure to heed the careful cautiousness of his undertones. The rhetoric found in Carter's Malaise Speech and in Obama's Inaugural Address has brought these issues to the forefront of the public discourse. Now we find ourselves in the midst of another energy crisis, one which is not simply a foreign policy predicament - as perhaps Carter's was, but one of society, environment, and human survival.


David Wogan said...

Pres. Carter's words marked a point in our history where we had a true chance to make a difference with the way we consume energy and impact the environment. The removal of the solar panels from the top of the White House by Pres. Reagan underscores how important and varying the political currents are. With a new administration, climate change on everyone's minds, and energy prices affecting the economy, it looks like we're moving back in the direction Jimmy Carter laid out in front of us. The opportunities are really there for us to take advantage of. Hopefully this will be the start of one of the "greatest adventures taken by the American people."

Bryan said...

According to MIT's Technology Review, MTPV Corporation, based in Boston, is working on more efficient solar power through the use of thermal photovoltaics (TPVs). Using solar cells, TPVs generate electricity by converting light radiating from a hot surface. MTPV is working on increasing photon flow from the hot surface to the solar panel. By reducing the gap between the solar cell and the heated material to less than a micron, the inventors have increased electron flow by 10 times that of conventional thermal photovoltaic systems. This will reduce size, price, and required temperature. Although many challenges lie ahead, this offers a peak into what kind of technological breakthroughs may lie ahead.

Brodie Black said...

Great post! The Carter/Reagan story certainly highlights the political tension that surrounds the energy dilemma here in the U.S. I would definitely agree that solar technology is poised to become a much larger player in the nation's energy portfolio. I wonder, though, how current price fluctuations in oil/gas have affected solar investments. The blog mentioned this volatility as a positive for the solar market, but I am a bit skeptical. So long as oil prices are low, it seems that corporations would have little incentive to invest in expensive, new technologies.

Sidenote: Can you repost the "Another Dawn for Solar Power" link? I couldn't get it to work.

amyscholze said...

I happened to catch the end of a discussion on Austin's KVET 98.1 FM about the 10 mill a year for 25 year 30MW solar power facility Dr. Webber talked about last week. Bob Cole, the station's morning host, is also the owner of Austin's Hill's Cafe. He was arguing against the plant with his small business example.

Hill's current electric bill for 1 month is around $10,000. The price increase per month for the solar power would be in the range of $600 to $800. Bob makes a dollar profit for each chicken fried steak his restaurant sells. That means, that he would have to sell 600 to 800 more chicken fried steaks in 1 month, in a time when people are not buying, to pay the electric bill. If sales are low, then costs will have to be cut somewhere, most likely in employees. So, Bob claimed that the plant is just not affordable. Because today's technology is not advanced enough for solar, the decision against the power plant is in Bob's words "Not rocket science". Being a huge supporter of the Austin Energy's plan for the nation's largest solar array in the world, I took some offense to these words, but I had never considered the cost to a local business that is not necessarily a large manufacturer.

Bob did mention that an Austin resident would only see an increase of about $0.60 with the new plant, and that each year (as technology increases) the price for solar will decrease. I am hopeful that by 2010, when the plant would open, our technology will be enough to substantially lower the cost of solar power.

Austin proposes nation's largest solar array