I spend today with the good people of Konarka, a ‘thin film’ ‘organic’ solar panel manufacturer with a nascent manufacturing facility in Bedford, (a 45 minute drive south of Cambridge). Konarka is one of a gaggle of solar power start-ups that are vying to move us to renewable solar energy and make a tidy profit in the process. I’m hoping to visit a several of these firms for chapter 3, which is nominally entitled “Energy Crisis? What Energy Crisis?”
After all, just 0.3% of the energy hitting the Earth’s surface in the form of sunlight would meet all our needs. We’re awash with it. So, what we have is actually an energy conversion crisis. Or more specifically a cost of energy conversion crisis. That’s why fossil fuels have done so well, because they pack a lot of energy punch in ratio to the amount of money it takes to release that energy in a usable form. This was obvious as far back as 1861 when French inventor Augustin Mouchout developed a steam engine powered entirely by the sun. Of the burgeoning Industrial Revolution he prophetically remarked, “Eventually industry will no longer find in Europe the resources to satisfy its prodigious expansion. Coal will undoubtedly be used up. What will industry do then?” But despite patronage from Emperor Napoleon III Mouchout’s invention never caught on. High costs of manufacture, coupled with the low price of coal made other power conversion technologies more economically viable – a problem that has dogged the solar energy industry ever since. But that’s about to change.
There are two key technology battles that the solar energy industry is fighting that are worth highlighting –
- reducing the cost of manufacture and ownership of solar power hardware (e.g. solar panels)
- making it more efficient (i.e. increasing the amount of sunlight converted into electricity).
More specifically, it’s the relationship between the two – how much energy do you get per buck? If that figure compares favourably to fossil fuels then you’ll begin to see large-scale take-up of solar power not for ‘green’ reasons but for commercial ones. And as fossil fuels get more expensive (as they become more scarce) and solar gets cheaper (as the energy:cost ratio improves) that inflection point draws ever closer. In fact, it’s arguable that it just happened. (I won’t get into a discussion of costs per watt here, because untangling the relationship between such measures and real world deployment of the technology is no small task - hence my use of the word ‘arguable’ above – but it will be covered in the book).
Tracy Wemett, Konarka’s PR woman and, it turns out, a passionate advocate of education (she mentors disadvantaged teenagers when she’s not helping her clients) drives me to the firm’s manufacturing facility. Tracy, it has to be said, drives like she’s immortal (i.e. has no fear of death). Still, death if it comes will probably be swift, we’re in her open top sports car on a beautiful sunny day. I need to look up sometimes and enjoy these moments of the trip. After all, there’s an elevated chance this could be one of my last moments on the planet.
We make it, still alive, to Konarka’s facility which is actually an old printing plant that belonged to Polaroid. Because Konarka print solar cells. It’s a hell of a printer I can tell you – Larry Weldon, Konarka head of manufacturing takes me on a tour – but the result is a flexible solar panel no thicker than a few sheets of paper. There’s no bulky, rigid silicon-based panels here. Konarka’s technology centres around ‘organic nano-particles’ (essentially long chains of polymers) that have energy generating characteristics. I’ll make this chemistry understandable in the book (it’s pretty cool) – and one of the guys who helped Konarka make use of it is Nobel Prize winning Alan Heeger. Heeger won the 2,000 Nobel Prize for Chemistry (along with Alan MacDiarmid and Hideki Shirakawa) “for their discovery and development of conductive polymers.” That’s enough geek speak for now. Anyway, you can wrap this stuff around laptop bags, garden furniture or roll it on top of your garage. It’s mobile solar energy generation, something that I’m becoming increasingly interested in, and its implications for our future. But more on that below.
I love the way engineers talk. They’re so matter-of-fact that sometimes you can miss that what they are saying is often quite extraordinary. Larry is no exception. He’s at the centre of a revolution, developing ways to turn the science of solar energy into a cheap manufactured solution. He’s one of the guys addressing that central problem of the cost:energy efficiency ratio (and by extension, helping to end our dependence of fossil fuels). Later I update my twitter status to read: “I like engineers – they talk revolution like it was replacing a fuse”.
Touring the factory is fun. It’s nice to see the future being made rather than just talked about. At the end of the production line is the quality control facility – including a test bed with powerful lamps that are ‘calibrated to 1 Sun’. This is where that all important efficiency rating is determined. Rather annoyingly the solar industry tends to quote a misleading efficiency metric (based on a standard called AM 1.5). For instance, let’s say a manufacturer claims that their cells have an efficiency rating of 10%. This infers that they convert 10% of the light energy hitting them into usable electric current, an inference the PR machine is happy for us to make. However, what ‘10% efficiency’ actually means is, ‘this panel will convert 10% of the light energy hitting it into usable electric current if it’s midday, if the panel is at the equator, and there’s no clouds in the sky’. The measure doesn’t take into account how, for instance, some technologies can generate electricity in low light, or from ambient angles. So a technology that generates lower levels of energy but can work in more ‘difficult’ light conditions (say earlier in the day, or later at dusk, or in cloudier climates etc) might actually generate more energy over a day than one with a higher efficiency rating. Bad solar power industry! Please start using some metrics that reveal the whole story. The test bed looks beautiful, the blue plastic sheeting surrounding it giving off a kind of ethereal sci-fi luminescence.
I have to confess I’m also amused by a machine I see on the tour which proudly displays its function as ‘BUTT SPLICER B’. Larry, Tracy and I joke that when this factory used to manufacture asses this machine was where they put in the crack. It’s actual function is far more prosaic – simply butting two films up to each other for joining together, but I’m adamant that whoever named this knew what they were doing. And to be honest who can blame them? Given the option of ‘dual film joiner’ or ‘butt splicer’ I know where I’d go.
I thank Larry for taking the time to show me around and head out of the factory with some trepidation, because I know the only way I’m getting back to Boston (and my talk with Konarka’s CEO Rick Hess) is with Tracy at the wheel. The photo she takes of me outside the plant could be last of me breathing.
Rick Hess is what I would call ‘very CEO’. He’s confident, relaxed with the air of man who can smell bullshit from 3 miles away. He’s also got the easy manner of a man who probably doesn’t have to worry too much about his pension. What I like about him is he’s honest and generous about his competitors – about where they have advantages or niches that he can’t exploit.
Soon our conversation begins to echo the themes that emerged during my talk with Bill Mitchell the day before – about technological advances that fragment existing models of behaviour or business. “Phones went wireless, Internet went wireless and the only thing that’s left you have to find a wire for is power,” says Rick. It’s an obvious statement but incredibly powerful – and it has interesting implications for the utility model of getting your power. At the beginning of August, Colorado’s biggest utility, Xcel, tried to put a surcharge on homes and businesses using rooftop solar power. Hmmm…
This article from Newsweek has some interesting observations:
In 2008, rooftop solar added more than 10 times the amount of power to the country’s grid than utilities did. Maryland-based Sun Edison, the country’s biggest installer of solar panels in the retail market, added more electricity to the grid last year, 25 megawatts, than did the entire utility industry.
“The utilities are more interested in protecting their stranglehold on the power grid and preserving their century-old business model than they are producing clean electricity,” says Jim Harvey, who heads up the Joshua Tree, Calif.-based Alliance for Responsible Energy Policy, an advocacy group that’s staunchly opposed to utility-generated solar power.
The ‘off grid’ solar revolution has potentially massive benefits for the developing world. “If you look at the developing world in terms of communications,” says Rick, “they skipped wires and went straight to wireless and I think for power they’re going to do the same thing”.
I try to imagine what an alien visitor would say looking at the way we distribute power. “You do what? You wait for millions of years until old biomass has become coal or oil? Then you burn it, to turn a turbine? Then you send the electricity you genereate down a huge system of wires, and if someone wants some of it they have to find the end of one of those wires and plug in? And you charge them for this shambles?” At this point I imagine said visitor pointing upwards with whatever it points with and saying, “Never think about taking it straight out the sky then?” Mankind shuffles awkwardly on its feet. “Well, you know, we are starting to do that. And look! – we have a butt splicer too.”