Long considered far too expensive to be a viable power source, solar energy is now benefiting from technological innovation, environmental concerns and the ever-rising cost of fossil fuels.
In the latest discovery, an MIT team yesterday announced it had developed a new way to concentrate solar beams, potentially reducing the cost of solar panels.
But such advances, still far from becoming commercial products, are only a small part of the forces finally making solar look feasible. Unlike in the early 1980s, when cheap energy prices helped derail Jimmy Carter's ambitions for solar power, today's technology is getting close to being cost-competitive with other forms of energy.
"We're not in a hype cycle," said Nathan Lewis, a chemistry professor at the California Institute of Technology. "There's a lot of innovation we're seeing now, regulations guaranteeing a market expanding for the next decade. . . . If you go to Silicon Valley and around Route 128, everyone and their brother who used to make computer chips are now trying to make thin-film solar cells."
In Massachusetts, the Patrick administration's Commonwealth Solar rebate program, implemented in January, is part of a push to increase the amount of solar energy used from 4 megawatts to 250 megawatts over the next decade. (By comparison, the Pilgrim nuclear plant has a generating capacity of nearly 700 megawatts.) A novel program included in the state's new energy bill would allow utilities to own solar panels for the first time.
Solar power has also benefited from competition and from scale, as more companies begin to get into the business. Evergreen Solar Inc., for example, will bring part of its new solar manufacturing plant in Devens online this month. Lux Research Inc., which follows emerging technologies, has predicted that the solar industry will grow at nearly 30 percent a year, to reach $71 billion by 2012.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has made investigation of solar power a priority, with a number of solar-specific initiatives, including the $10 million Solar Revolution Project this spring, the Eni-MIT Solar Frontiers Center established this month, and the MIT-Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems earlier this year.
"Tremendous progress has been made, much higher technical performance, for much lower cost," said John Deutch, an MIT Institute professor who knows something about solar's troubled trajectory.
Deutch recalls standing in the White House Rose Garden when he worked for the Department of Energy in 1979, and laying out to reporters the goal of filling one-fifth of America's energy needs with solar power by 2000. Instead, he has watched, over the past three decades, as the portion of energy created by solar has remained at less than 1 percent.
Still, he says, today's situation "is not at all comparable to 1979."
Lewis said it is not clear whether solar technology will become mainstream through incremental improvements or whether it will take a transformative new technology.
Still, one thing people underestimate, he said, is the scale of the problem, which includes not just the cost of the technology, but the challenge to manufacture and deploy new energy infrastructure. Imagine, for starters, having to add solar panels to thousands of rooftops every day for a decade. Because of the massive size of the energy marketplace, solar energy will not replace significant amounts of fossil fuels in the near future. But that also presents a huge opportunity for any company that gets solar right.
Jonathan Mapel, an author of the new MIT study in the Journal of Science, is cofounding Covalent Solar, a company that hopes to take advantage of that by developing cheaper, more efficient solar panels.
"The question is, can you make a better solar panel that you can put on somebody's roof?" Mapel said. "The two things that matter are: You want more power output, and you want to pay less for it."
The work by Mapel and others could potentially do both, by using a simple trick that makes more efficient use of sunlight and uses fewer costly solar cells.
Solar cells are made from different materials that each operate most efficiently when using light from a narrow band of wavelengths. By filtering the light through a pane of glass coated with dye, Mapel and his colleagues have been able to direct some light to solar cells that can use it most efficiently. Those cells are placed on the edge of the pane, requiring far fewer solar cells than if they were placed along the surface as on conventional panels.
The remaining light passes through the pane and, if placed on a conventional solar panel, can be converted to electricity.
The researchers found that their setup increased the efficiency of traditional panels by about 20 percent, but they believe that with a little more tweaking, they can boost that to 50 percent.
Allen Barnett, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Delaware, said that beyond such basic research to improve efficiency, the industry has already reached a turning point and is set to shift the way people use energy.
"The parallel is microelectronics," Barnett said. "Microelectronics started out in big universities, now they are in laptops, cellphones, microelectronic chips all over your home. People think of solar as replacing a coal-fired power plant; it's really different. . . . It is a new way to use electricity and use energy."
© Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company.