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May 1, 2007: Study Explores What's Needed to Get Cheap, Efficient Solar Power

April 30, 2007
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AMHERST, Mass. - If solar power is going to play a significant role in the energy equation of the future, there must be advances in technologies to store that power and more investment by manufacturers, concludes a new federally funded study by University of Massachusetts Amherst scientist Erin Baker.

The report by Baker and colleagues explores the viability of solar technologies through a combination of evaluations by experts and economic modeling, allowing the researchers to look at solar power’s role in the electricity sector in 15-year chunks through 2095.

Jeffrey Keisler of UMass Boston, and Haewon Chon, a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland working with the Joint Global Change Research Institute, collaborated with Baker.

The scientists approached their analysis of solar technologies from the framework of a research and development portfolio. They analyzed the risks of certain investments, and solicited advice from experts to identify the key technological breakthroughs in solar technology that would lower its costs. They also asked what hurdles might make it hard to move the technology from the lab to production, and the probability of success, given funding trajectory. The researchers then fed that information into a model that allowed them to play out various investment scenarios.

“We asked what if technologies that capture solar power were efficient enough to supply the needs of a house through a solar shingle roof,” said Baker. “What breakthroughs would be needed for the solar cells to last the lifetime of the roof, and cost as much or less than fossil fuel-based electricity. And if that technology is to become a reality, what investments are required now.”

Several of their findings bear noting, said Baker. First, even if there are research breakthroughs that made the costs of photovoltaics comparable to or less than that of fossil fuels - roughly 3 cents per kilowatt hour by 2050 - there would still be a limited impact on emissions unless the advances are combined with improvements in low-cost storage.

“The development of complementary technologies, in particular low-cost storage of electricity, is critical,” said Baker. Current technologies do not have good, cheap storage options, and putting all the power into the grid may make it unstable, she said. But when technological breakthroughs are combined with improvements in storage, using solar technology could lower emissions by 20 percent at no additional cost to the economy - taking a serious bite out of the carbon problem.

Baker noted another finding: the experts disagree on how much investment is needed to bring about the breakthroughs required to make solar technology widespread and cheap. But they do agree that federal dollars alone aren’t enough; there has to be more investment from the manufacturing sector.

This suggests that if policy makers want to increase the probability of having the needed technological breakthroughs, they need to encourage investment from the manufacturing sector - this could happen in the form of subsidies, tax breaks, as well as public-private collaborations, said Baker.

Publication date: 04/30/2007  

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