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The Utility of R&D
Why Elaborate Green Subsidies Don't Work

The cost of manufacturing solar panels has dropped in recent years, largely thanks to generous government support by states attempting to move first in the fledgling market. Yet the efficiencies of these panels have stagnated. That’s a significant problem for the future of solar, as Ars Technica reports:

[Photovoltaic] manufacturing innovation hasn’t been matched on the basic research side; it’s been over a decade since the last time anyone set a new efficiency record for silicon cells. And, even as manufacturing costs have dropped, the cost of support equipment and installation has remained stubbornly high and is an ever-increasing slice of the total price of PV systems.

But there could soon be some progress on that front:

At the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, two researchers spelled out how they were finding ways to take an expensive material and make it cheap enough to be deployed on the same scale as silicon.

The material in question is gallium arsenide, which can be fashioned into solar cells with efficiencies twice those of silicon. The high cost of the material, however, has limited its use to applications like satellites. But two research groups have come up with ways to get much more out of GaAs.

More basic research like this, rather than subsidies, is what we would like to see more of. Pouring government dollars into the manufacture of current-generation solar technology hasn’t gotten us very far. A tangled web of subsidies stretches across the globe, covering every stage of solar panel production, but it’s not enough to simply push the costs of manufacturing panels around to different parties. Solar panels need to be able to pump out more energy per panel to justify the installation, upkeep, and transmission costs.

The research and development of new technologies remains the best way to pursue the renewables portion of our energy mix. Renewables have to be able to compete on price with fossil fuels. Only then can the green dream of renewable energy start to come to fruition.

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  • Richard T

    Are you deliberately bypassing the Green mindset? Deploying solar cells isn’t about efficiency; it’s about showing your piety. Matt. 6:1-4 and all that.

  • Fat_Man

    The solar cells could be 100% efficient and cheap as asphalt roofing. They still won’t produce any energy more than half of the time. Further, the times you need energy the most — in the winter months — they will produce energy only about a third of the day. That is why they will never be economical. Research on solar is wasted money.

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