After years of hope and hype, there seems to be visible movement toward new energy sources that stand a decent chance in market competition with current oil, natural gas and coal. ... the Department of Energy has just announced a breakthrough in the efficiency of solar to electricity conversion. Boeing-Spectrolab achieved the 40 percent efficiency, more than twice a previous record, using a sunlight concentrator and a "multijunction converter". This is much like a normal solar voltage converter with several novel features, including the ability to convert the infrared and ultraviolet light spectrum, about half of the energy in sunlight, which has not been usable before. The Department of Energy claims that "This breakthrough may lead to systems with an installation cost of only $3 per watt, producing electricity at a cost of 8-10 cents per kilowatt/hour, making solar electricity a more cost-competitive and integral part of our nation's energy mix." ... Are these technologies marketable? A lot of good ideas never make it to the real world. At the target of 8-10 cents per kW/hr, solar would not need extraordinary subsidies, once it is mass-produced. MIT's Technology Review argues that modern solar cells are essentially plastic sheets, much easier to make on a large scale than brittle silicon junctions.The bigger picture is covered by James Woolsey, former director of the CIA in the Wall Street Journal today (free link):
Bet on major progress toward independence, spurred by market forces and a portfolio of rapidly developing oil-replacing technologies. In recent years a number of alternatives to conventional oil have come to the fore--oil sands, oil shale, coal-to-diesel and coal-to-methanol technologies. But their acceptability to a new Congress, quite possibly the next president, and a public increasingly concerned about global warming will depend on their demonstrating affordable and effective methods of sequestering the carbon they produce or otherwise avoiding carbon emissions.One key to progress is high oil prices. True. While oil is expensive we are motivated to seek alternatives; when it drops, the motivation is killed. The danger is that OPEC will manipulate the price to lower it below the economic point where investors will put their big bucks on the development of plug-in hybrid cars, etc. Woolsey doesn't give a number, but a friend with an oil-industry leader in his family thinks it is around $60 per barrel. Woolsey points out how we can avoid OPEC manipulation. Plug-in hybrids are (will be) recharged overnight. There is less demand for electricity at night, so it has lower value. And it costs less. Large power plants that provide the "base capacity" are very expensive to start and stop, so they are only changed at monthly or seasonal times. So the marginal cost of providing more energy from these base plants is very low, as well. This increases the economics of hybrid cars. So? As we use substantially less fossil fuels for cars OPEC loses leverage over us. As OPEC's market gets smaller the members will be driven by pure economic need to get revenue and they will not want to reduce revenue for gaming their customers. Biomass:
... Indeed two years ago the National Energy Policy Commission (NEPC), making reasonable assumptions about improved vehicle efficiency and biomass yields over the next 20 years, estimated that just 7% of U.S. farmland (the amount now in the Soil Bank) could produce enough biomass to provide half the fuel needed by U.S. passenger vehicles, and that production costs for cellulosic ethanol were headed downward toward around 70 cents per gallon. Further, conversion of only a portion of industrial, municipal and animal wastes--using thermal processes now coming into commercial operation--appears to be able to yield an additional several million barrels a day of diesel or, with some processes, methanol.I firmly believe American ingenuity can make huge progress. But we have seen politics get in the way - ethanol won't stand on its own merits because the farm state Congressmen demand a gift for their farmers. And there will be more interference from Algore types. Woolsey covers the topic more thoroughly; read it.