sábado, 5 de febrero de 2011

From Sputnik to SunShot

The energy secretary, Steven Chu, was publicly using the phrase “Sputnik moment” two months before President Obama picked it up in the State of the Union speech to describe the need for a national effort to improve competitiveness in a technical field. Now he has moved on to a new space-challenge term: SunShot.

Just as President Kennedy pledged in 1961 that the United States would land an astronaut on the moon by the end of that decade — a moonshot — Dr. Chu said the United States should attempt a “sunshot” by aiming to cut the cost of solar power by about three-quarters by the end of this decade, to $1 a watt for utility-scale projects. That would translate to an end-user price of about 6 cents per kilowatt-hour, he said. “That would make solar energy cost competitive with other forms of energy without subsidies of any kind,’’ he said in a conference call with reporters on Friday.

(The average retail price of a kilowatt-hour today is about 10 cents. The wholesale price, for electricity generated on a utility scale, varies widely over the course of the day and the year.)

Solar companies have made strong progress in cutting the price of the solar panels used in photovoltaic systems, which convert sunlight into electric current. But Dr. Chu noted that this would not be enough. The installed cost per watt is now about $4 and the panel is less than half of that, but if the panel became free, the rest of the system would still be far too expensive.

Solar developers will have to cut costs in “the installation, the mount, permitting, the renting or use of the land, you name it,’’ said Dr. Chu. One way to cut the land cost would be to raise the efficiency of the cell, so fewer acres would be required per megawatt of power, he said, along with fewer mounting brackets and less labor to install the solar farm.

The goal extends to the other big solar technology, too, solar thermal, in which the sun’s light is concentrated to boil water into steam, which turns a conventional turbine.

The SunShot initiative was announced soon after the State of the Union speech, but on Friday, the Energy Department announced that it would provide $27 million to nine new solar projects that are supposed to strengthen the supply chain for solar components. One goal is to shorten the time required to get a new technology from a laboratory into a manufacturing plant.

The department said it had spent $1 billion on solar in the last 10 years, and it took partial credit for the price of solar power falling 60 percent since 1995.