by Sean Pool and Lauren Simenauer, in a Science Progress cross-post
Too often, when talking about research and innovation on clean energy technologies, policymakers, pundits, and the media tend to assume that the biggest breakthrough will come from a completely novel technology. The discovery of some new and sexy clean energy technology will suddenly change the game and make clean energy abundant and affordable overnight.
In practice that rarely happens. A more likely scenario is that humble, behind-the-scenes “process innovations” will continue to increase the efficiency and drive down the costs of manufacturing the technologies we already know work.
The Department of Energy has recently completed testing on just such a humble breakthrough. The Optical Cavity Furnace is a new piece of equipment for making solar cells that is about to rock the photovoltaic industry by slashing costs and increasing efficiency. The news should not just excite tech nerds—by reducing the cost of producing solar cells by nearly three-quarters, this new technology represents another big step on the path to making clean energy the cheap kind of energy.
Here’s how it works. By using optics to more efficiently focus visible and infrared light, the Optical Cavity Furnace can heat silicon wafers used in solar cell production much more precisely and uniformly than previous forms of solar cell manufacture. The resulting solar cells are stronger, more efficient, and have fewer impurities. The National Renewable Energy Lab, or NREL, the DOE office responsible for the research, and a corporate partner AOS Inc. are now working to bring this technology to scale. The partners plan to build an industrial-scale Optical Cavity Furnace capable of producing 1,200 highly efficient solar cells per hour. NREL has cooperative research agreements with many of the country’s biggest solar cell producers.
Even better, in addition to producing solar cells more reliably, quickly, and therefore cheaply, the Optical Cavity Furnace itself is cheaper than traditional equipment used to produce cells. As the cost of manufacturing solar cells goes down, elementary economics suggests the accessibility of solar cells will soar. Then it’s a matter of harnessing their power in a myriad of other industries in a clean energy domino effect.
The White House has challenged the solar industry to produce clean electricity at $1 per watt. It has also set a national goal to achieve 80 percent clean energy use by 2035. Though some tout the idea that radically new breakthroughs in energy technology are needed to achieve these goals, incremental process innovation in existing technologies is perhaps a more important part of the solution. Innovations like the Optical Cavity Furnace that make the technologies we already know about cheaper, easier to produce, and more abundant can have game-changing impacts on bringing clean energy to scale.
The concept of “grid parity”—the point at which generating electricity from alternate energy sources is equivalent in cost to generating electricity from grid power—underlies the feasibility of using solar cells as a resource. Due to the competing forces of supply and demand, consumers likely will not choose clean energy until it is cheap and convenient. The good news is that researchers are racing toward that goal at an impressive rate.
In fact, the cost of photovoltaic, or PV, cells had already fallen 50 percent in the past two years prior to the DOE announcement. A June 2011 projection predicted PV module prices would hit the goal of $1 per watt by 2013; now the finish line of the proverbial “race to the bottom” seems even more imminent.
For consumers weary of the daily media promises of a cure-all solution to climate change, consider this: Deflating prices of solar cell manufacturing mirror the downward price slope of other technologies we now take for granted, like cell phones and DVD players. One important driver of those price declines is process innovation. And the government, instead of being an obstacle to competition, is uniquely poised to foster it, as evidenced by the new DOE solar furnace. In addition to the work being done at the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, dozens of other federal labs across the country under the DOE Office of Science, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Manufacturing Extension Partnerships are helping push the bounds of process innovation in clean energy manufacturing.
The notion that science or innovation alone can solve our energy and climate challenges may seem like the overoptimistic ramblings of an enthusiastic technocrat. Yet new technologies like the Optical Cavity Furnace are piling up, creating a stronger and stronger rationale for increased federal investment in innovation. Through process innovation, we increase efficiency and lower costs, virtually negating the common arguments against climate-conscious energy policy. Like it or not, most consumers still make energy choices based on the impact those choices have on their wallets rather than based on the impact they have on the environment. With a vibrant national research ecosystem that fosters process innovation, before we know it, more and more consumers will be choosing clean energy not because it is the socially conscious choice but because it’s the cost-effective choice.