Solar energy is advancing

Solar energy, whether you like it or not, will be the future. As I have said before, the age of fossil fuels was a very short interlude in the history of humanity. Nuclear–fission now and perhaps in a few decades fusion–will have a significant share but for the long haul it will be solar.

Here is a good short summary of the economics of solar energy published in the June 2008 edition of the McKinsey Quarterly. Definitely worth a quick read.

There’s good news out of MIT on the solar front. MIT News reports that their researchers have made a “major discovery” which mimics photosynthesis. (Hat tip: Reuben.)

Until now, solar power has been a daytime-only energy source, because storing extra solar energy for later use is prohibitively expensive and grossly inefficient. With today’s announcement, MIT researchers have hit upon a simple, inexpensive, highly efficient process for storing solar energy.

Requiring nothing but abundant, non-toxic natural materials, this discovery could unlock the most potent, carbon-free energy source of all: the sun. “This is the nirvana of what we’ve been talking about for years,” said MIT’s Daniel Nocera, the Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy at MIT and senior author of a paper describing the work in the July 31 issue of Science. “Solar power has always been a limited, far-off solution. Now we can seriously think about solar power as unlimited and soon.”

Investment in R&D is what matters. I keep saying that India needs to do a “Manhattan Project” type of deal and throw about US$ 100 billion into the pot for the next 10 years and then sit back and reap the rewards. Think big and all that sort of thing. What sort of investments went into this little bit of advance at MIT?

The project is part of the MIT Energy Initiative, a program designed to help transform the global energy system to meet the needs of the future and to help build a bridge to that future by improving today’s energy systems. MITEI Director Ernest Moniz, Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems, noted that “this discovery in the Nocera lab demonstrates that moving up the transformation of our energy supply system to one based on renewables will depend heavily on frontier basic science.”

The success of the Nocera lab shows the impact of a mixture of funding sources – governments, philanthropy, and industry. This project was funded by the National Science Foundation and by the Chesonis Family Foundation, which gave MIT $10 million this spring to launch the Solar Revolution Project, with a goal to make the large scale deployment of solar energy within 10 years.

Just $10 million backed with real science and engineering talent and there you have the possibility of a major breakthrough. Imagine.

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