by James A. Bacon
Joshua Choi, a University of Virginia chemical engineer, is part of a research team that has discovered a new class of materials, metal halide perovskites, that can be sprayed onto a substrate where they crystallize into a thin film that captures energy in a solar cell. There are many hurdles to come before the discovery can be commercialized, but according to Science Daily, the materials offers the potential of dramatically lowering the cost of solar energy.
Of all forms of energy production, solar is on a productivity curve most closely resembling to a Moore’s Law, which described the process of in which microchips doubled their processing power every year or two. As scientists devise more efficient ways to convert sunlight into electricity — and Choi’s innovation is only one of many — the cost of solar power seems destined to head lower.
One would think that the prospects for solar power look better than ever. But the electricity source is experiencing a backlash in the very states and countries that moved most aggressively to adopt it, according to the New York Times.
Spain, Great Britain and Germany all are scaling back their regulatory support for solar energy. Meanwhile, in the U.S., utilities and regulators in California, Hawaii, Nevada and Arizona have backed off their generous backing of solar, and the Times says other states may follow their example.
While the cost of solar is getting cheaper, solar panels aren’t producing when the demand is greatest. Solar production peaks during mid-day, but the peak demand for electricity — from air-conditioning in the late afternoon, and home appliances when people get home from work — occurs a few hours later. The discrepancy does not create a problem when solar generates electricity on a small scale; it is a problem when solar and other intermittent power sources comprise a majority of power production.
“The challenge,” suggests the Times article, “is to design a new kind of rate system — one that accurately values electricity that can now flow in different directions and at different volumes at different times of day. It can also, depending on the location and level of demand, either increase or relieve strain on the grid.”
Bacon’s bottom line: Solar and wind are coming. PJM Interconnection, the regional transmission organization of which Virginia electric utilities are a part, estimates that it can accommodate up to 30% renewable electricity without risking service interruptions. (An advantage of a regional organization is that sharing electricity over a broad geographic area smooths out the local spikes in solar and wind generation.) Virginia is far from achieving that level of renewables penetration, so the challenges experienced by other states and countries are not likely to crop up here anytime soon.
One could argue that Virginia’s regulatory go-slow approach to renewables has saved the Old Dominion from the confusion and disruption that prompted the early adopters to backtrack. Some solar advocates seem to live in a la-la land disconnected from such realities. But one could likewise argue that we need to start thinking about a regulatory framework that accommodates more wind and solar, or others will figure it out long before we do, leaving Virginia at a competitive disadvantage. I don’t see that discussion occurring right now. We need to begin.There are currently no comments highlighted.