Beware of the Solar Breakthrough

With everybody from venture capitalists to green-minded homeowners keen to see breakthroughs in solar energy, itâ''s getting harder all the time to separate the hype from the reality. Last weekâ''the last week of Julyâ''a team at MIT announced it had achieved a major advance that they claimed could make photovoltaic energy economically viable at last: a method of storing PV-generated electricity at night, by means of a new catalyst for separating oxygen from the hydrogen in water. The general idea is that the hydrogen gleaned from the water could be used to power fuel cells, so that none of the solar electricity would be wasted.

The most notable thing about this announcement is the fabulously extravagant and overheated language in which it was made. A write-up of the principal investigatorâ''s article, distributed by Science magazine to journalists, described the innovation as â''revolutionary,â'' â''a huge leap,â'' â''unprecedented,â'' and â''nirvana.â'' Only in the seventh paragraph of that release do we hear the investigator express confidence that â''this is going to work.â'' So it doesnâ''t exactly work yet? Or, to judge from an EE Times write-up, it probably works about as well as a well-established method for separating oxygen from hydrogen, but perhaps more cost-effectively.

To take another example, First Solar, a relatively young company based in Tempe, Arizona, has suddenly been getting a lot of attention with claims that it has figured out a way to make PV material at an installation cost of $1 per wattâ''though the global average for solar installations was in the range of $6 or $7 per watt last year. How plausible is that claim? Well, itâ''s hard to know, because as a feature article appearing in this monthâ''s IEEE Spectrum magazine points out, â''The company does not talk to reporters. Not at all.â''

That article was written by a freelancer and edited by a colleague, but I can attest to the accuracy of its singular point. A few months ago I (that is to say, a journalist) was asked at the last minute to moderate a session at a big PV meeting in San Diego, in which the CEO of First Solar was supposed to be one of the panelists. At the last moment he reneged. A month or so later it just so happened I was at a meeting near Tempe, so I called First Solar and asked if I could come over to take a look at their breakthrough technology. The answer, after a handful of phone messages and a couple of e-mails? No.

This week I was contacted by a small company that has been working with a national laboratory to develop an improved way of depositing PV on a variety of materials, so that, for example, solar cells can be incorporated right into a buildingâ''s shell. The company recently won an r&d award, prompting it to contact journalists. The chief technology officer of the company described the companyâ''s technology to me in careful detail, but he refused to make any claims about how much the process would ultimately cost or when exactly they would be able to introduce their first products. Now that got my attention.

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