Like so many civilization-changing discoveries – penicillin, radioactivity, X-rays and smallpox vaccinations – a new twist on solar energy production, uncovered by Penn State researchers, suggests that in the not-so-distant future, solar energy will be not only more efficient, but more affordable than it is today.
This is saying quite a lot, given the fact that solar photovoltaic (PV) panel prices have dropped precipitously since 2008, thanks to an overabundance of Chinese-manufactured PV panels.
In fact, the drop – about 75 percent, according to the most careful estimates – now accounts for the “thinning the herd” effect seen since 2008, when a number of solar panel manufacturing and installation firms went belly up, among them Solyndra and Evergreen Solar, both U.S. government-backed firms which should, by virtue of their association with the U.S. Department of Energy, or DOE, been somewhat protected from the meltdown.
But it ain’t over yet. In the wake of these disasters, Forbes – the financial reporter par excellence – predicted last year that another 180 solar panel manufacturers worldwide would bite the dust by 2015, leaving a cleared playing field for the best and brightest. The analysis is from GTM Research, a “green energy” publication from (of course!) Greentech Media.
So how did Penn State escape the cut? We’re assuming it is a high level of know-how and the fact that Pennsylvania, the state, operates a program which models itself on the U.S. State Energy Program (SEP), and perhaps derives support from the government as well. In fact, the Pa. Office of Pollution Prevention and Energy Assistance (OPPEA), is the go-to agency for evaluating and siting cutting-edge energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies intended to address environmental problems.
But it’s probably more than mere know-how. Penn State was one of the first to offer a Master of Professional Studies in Renewable Energy and Sustainability Systems degree. Big name, simple premise: let’s make sure that the people in charge of the “clean and green” marketplace in Pennsylvania and the U.S. know whereof they speak. Because nothing leads to failure quicker than the first starter out of the gate who doesn’t know where he, or she, is going. In fact, clean energy technologies followed a path very similar to Silicon Valley, where a boom-and-bust scenario in the late 1980s saw high-tech firms opened and closed, sometimes in the same week.
But back to Penn State, where materials and engineering scientists from a number of entities cooperated to discover the breakthrough, which will benefit both solar PV energy and optoelectronics – i.e., light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, fiber optic communications, electric eyes, remote sensors, and some medical diagnostic techniques like endoscopic surgery.
The discovery involves plasmonics (plasma/optic field oscillations in electron fields compressed into miniscule “wires”), a field that many scientists believe may lead to ultra-high-speed computing and a revolution in medical therapies.
The science is overwhelming to my tiny brain, but women all over the world will be heartened to know that a woman, Dawn Bonnell, the vice provost (i.e., vice president, vice chancellor, etc.) for research, led the integrated team from two universities to success.
Moreover, the discovery isn’t “new-new”. Bonnell published a paper in 2010 detailing initial work into plasmonic nanostructures. However, it wasn’t until this September that scientists were able to confirm their theory that electrons gathered from the plasmonic structures were responsible for the amplified photo-receptivity.
Based on those observations, which saw efficiency increases of from three to 10 percent even before tweaking the system, Bonnell said that she could “envision huge increases in efficiency”.
My question? Perhaps it’s sour grapes, but what happened to the theoretical Shockley-Queisser limit on solar PV efficiency? I mean, come on, why make a rule if it’s only going to be broken?
Well, there’s this research, based on nanowire prototypes. And then there’s Robert Browning, a 19th Century poet who said: “Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what's a heaven for?”
Lacking the science, I am forced to go with the poet.