Payoff from Sustained Solar Power R&D

Something good is happening in the world of photovoltaics: renewed investment in R&D is increasing the efficiency with which solar cells convert sunlight into electricity. See, for example, two reports I recently posted to the MIT Technology Review website:

Today’s on the latest in plastic solar cells: “Record Efficiency for Plastic Solar Cells”. And last month’s on the high-output crystal cells employed mostly in satellites: “Ultra-efficient Photovoltaics”.

That such performance gains are occurring in cells employing such radically different technologies suggests a systemic development. Alan Heeger, the 2000 Nobel Prize winner behind today’s advance in plastic power, told me his greatest hope is that the U.S. Department of Energy funding flowing once again to solar R&D will endure.

Consistent support is something the U.S. solar research community has never had. Support for PV jumped amid the 1970s energy crises, crashed with the energy price slide under Reagan, came back under Clinton and then fell again when Bush arrived. Plastic photovoltaics suffered similar short-term thinking in 2005 when DARPA (the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency) quietly shelved a $40 million R&D program in plastic and other forms of “organic” solar after just one year of research.

“My hope is that interest on the part of the funding agencies and more generally on the part of the people in this country is sustained,” says Heeger. Only that consistency, he told me, will deliver the improvements required to make solar a big part of the solution.

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