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Home > Feature Articles > Alternative Energy Solutions > Solar Energy

Solar Research Lags at Federal Level Behind Biofuels

Solar, coal, nuclear and biofuel research is funded by federal grants -- which win the funding plays?

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solar earth sun The following excerpts are from an article "Solar Power Wins Enthusiasts but Not Money" in the New York Times - July 16, 2007. It's a comprehensive article worth reading if you are in the busindess of solar or biofuels.

SHORT EXCERPTS:

The trade association for the nuclear power industry recently asked 1,000 Americans what energy source they thought would be used most for generating electricity in 15 years. The top choice? Not nuclear plants, or coal or natural gas. The winner was the sun, cited by 27 percent of those polled.

...however the business case is very different:

But for all the enthusiasm about harvesting sunlight, some of the most ardent experts and investors say that moving this energy source from niche to mainstream — last year it provided less than 0.01 percent of the country’s electricity supply — is unlikely without significant technological breakthroughs. And given the current scale of research in private and government laboratories, that is not expected to happen anytime soon.

Even a quarter century from now, says the Energy Department official in charge of renewable energy, solar power might account for, at best, 2 or 3 percent of the grid electricity in the United States.

In the meantime, coal-burning power plants, the main source of smokestack emissions linked to global warming, are being built around the world at a rate of more than one a week.

While venture capitalists often support the commercialization of new technologies, basic research money comes almost entirely from the federal government.

These days, a growing amount of government money is headed to the farm-state favorite, biofuels, and to research on burning coal while capturing the resulting carbon dioxide, the main heat-trapping smokestack gas.

In the current fiscal year, the Energy Department plans to spend $159 million on solar research and development. It will spend nearly double, $303 million, on nuclear energy research and development, and nearly triple, $427 million, on coal, as well as $167 million on other fossil fuel research and development.

In the battle for money from Washington, solar lobbyists say they are outgunned by their counterparts representing coal, corn and the atom. Government spending on energy research has long been shaped by political constituencies. Nuclear power, for example, has enjoyed consistent support from the Senate Energy Committee no matter which party is in power.

Biofuels, mostly ethanol and biodiesel, have attracted lawmakers who support farm subsidies. Last year an impromptu coalition established a goal of producing 25 percent of the country’s energy, including vehicle fuel, from renewable sources by 2025.

For the moment, the strongest government support for solar power is coming from the states, not Washington. But there, too, the focus remains on stimulating markets, not laboratory research.

“This is not an arena where private energy companies are likely to make the breakthrough,” said Nathan S. Lewis, head of a solar-research laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.

Many environmental organizations are pushing for tax credits for people who buy solar equipment, which helps manufacturing but not research.

Bush administration officials say they are committed to making power from photovoltaic technology as well as “solar thermal” systems competitive with other sources by 2015.

To be sure, there are some promising signs in solar energy. Big arrays of mirrors that concentrate sunlight to run turbines, which first emerged in the early 1980s, are resurgent in sun-baked places like the American Southwest, Spain and Australia. Some developers say this solar thermal technology is competitive now with power generated by natural gas when demand, and prices, hit periodic peaks.

With more research, the solar thermal method might allow for storing energy. Currently, all solar power is hampered by a lack of storage capability.

SOURCE: Read the entire in-depth article at New York Times



Edited by Carolyn Allen, owner/editor of California Green Solutions
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