Here comes the sun

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
June 24, 2004

Go to YouTube and you can see a corporate video of a printing press running at 100 feet per minute, applying a nanoparticle ink to foil and producing solar cells. This machine is owned by Nanosolar Inc., which in turn is partly owned by Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the founders of Google. This one printing machine, Nanosolar claims, can produce solar cells with a capacity of 1,000 MW per year, the equivalent of a nuclear reactor at Indian Point outside Manhattan or two nuclear reactors at Pickering outside Toronto.

Unlike nuclear reactors, which take a decade to build and billions of dollars in capital costs before delivering a single kilowatt-hour to a home or business, Nanosolar’s breakthrough technology can help meet society’s power needs soon after its ink has dried, and the press’s capital costs amount to a mere $1.65-million. Put another way, we can wait 10 years to get nuclear power up and running. Or, by relying on a single Nanosolar press, we can have the solar equivalent of a major nuclear plant in one year, and the equivalent of 10 major plants in a decade. Soon, says Nanosolar, its printing presses will be operating much faster — perhaps 20 times faster. Should this prove feasible, a single Nanosolar press would pump out in a single decade the equivalent of 200 nuclear plants — far more than now exist in all of North America.

To add to the slam-dunk superiority of Nanosolar-type technology over nuclear, solar cells produce power when we especially need it — when people are awake and industries are humming. During the low-value off-peak hours when power is in great surplus, the solar cells sleep, too. Nuclear reactors, by contrast, can’t ratchet down or turn off when their output isn’t needed. Off-peak nuclear power, in fact, is sometimes produced at a loss because its operating costs exceeds the pittance earned at, say, 3 a.m.

To get bang for the buck, and obtain the power that a growing economy needs, nuclear and solar are as different as night and day. Nuclear power, a half-century after the launch of the first generation of nuclear reactors, remains an immature technology, each successive generation proving to be not only unreliable but also subject to ever-higher costs. Solar technology, in contrast, becomes ever more reliable and ever less costly, and is only immature in the same way that computer technology is immature — there is no end in sight yet to how far and fast it can go.

Nanosolar, founded in 2002 by two Stanford PhD candidates applying Silicon Valley smarts, is a case in point. By the end of 2003, it had obtained 60 patents, By 2004, it had developed its printing method. By 2006, it had published its results in a peer-reviewed journal and, within months, raised $100-million. By the end of 2007 it had made its first commercial shipment. Now Nanosolar can’t keep up with the demand — its factory’s output for the next 12-months is pre-sold.

Nanosolar’s solar panels could go on rooftops but the company recommends against this — at least until building codes become flexible enough to accommodate panels without the need to battle municipal bureaucracies. Besides, it says, it is developing a residential product sure to wow the homeowner.

In the meantime, it touts small municipal solar power plants that can be up and running in one year on the outskirts of cities and towns, where land is readily available. Each would be between 2 MW and 10 MW in size — enough to power 1,000 to 5,000 homes. Put one of these in several hundred cities and a nuclear plant’s worth of power would be delivered, locally and in a decentralized manner, and without the expensive and unsightly transmission towers that accompany large nuclear plants.

As impressive as Nanosolar is, here’s something more impressive still: This company is but one of several with solar breakthroughs that stand to revolutionize the energy world. Some of the competing solar technologies are designed for large-scale applications, some small. In this dynamic new energy marketplace, some will prosper and, doubtless, some will fail, just as many of the computer pioneers in the 1970s and 1980s failed for one reason or another. But large or small, well capitalized or not, the solar technologies are working more impressively than anyone could have dreamed a decade ago and seem certain to overtake nuclear as a provider of additional power to our electricity systems. If the projections from Nanosolar and others prove accurate, in fact, they will become the most economic power source of all, besting even coal.

Clean, limitless power is now within grasp, courtesy of those who have reached for the sun.

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