Low-Cost Solar Power Should Be Close At Hand

I am beginning to wonder.  If the answer for making solar energy cheaper than coal were to pass our way, would we see it coming?  Would we recognize it, and rally to help it to succeed?

Stan Ovshinsky and His Photovoltaic Production Line

The fact is, I think I may have seen it, already.  It is tough to discover how hard it is to get our policy leaders to figure it out.

About a year ago, Berkeley Law’s Dean Christopher Edley traveled to Detroit to meet with Stan Ovshinsky, a man who for more than 50 years has been a pioneer in the field of amorphous materials.  Along the way, Stan has invented many things, including the battery used in most hybrid vehicles, and laid the groundwork for flat-screen televisions and computer flash drives.  He also invented a commercially-successful type of thin-film photovoltaic material.  His finished product can be rolled out onto a roof for installation.  It is nearly indestructible (bullet holes won’t make it flinch), and has done service on the exterior of the U.S. space station.  The manufacturers of his product sell it as fast at it comes off of the assembly line.

Dean Edley was inspired by his trip and encouraged me to visit Stan Ovshinsky, as well.  I did, and was excited by what I saw.  Recently, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert made the same pilgrimage and wrote about it in the Times.

Stan Ovshinsky says he can make photovoltaic material that will be cost-competitive with coal.  There is every reason to believe that he knows what he is talking about — over 50 years of reasons, including a demonstrated ability to make commercially-viable photovoltaics.  I have been privileged to get to know Stan, and can say with confidence that he is the real deal. Not only is the case he makes for inexpensive photovoltaics convincing, what is also evident is his unencumbered motivation to use this technology for the betterment of the planet.  He would link pervasive use of photovoltaics to the separation of hydrogen for water, and then use that hydrogen as a transporation fuel. He has invented an efficient means for storing hydrogen in a vehicle for use as a combustion fuel.  Did I mention that he is creating jobs in Detriot?

What is missing is the kind of financial support he needs to complete the “proof-of-concept” phase for his advanced photovoltaics, and then achieve full commercial operation.

The agony is that despite the ambitious funding opportunities in the recent stimulus legislation, and despite the government’s ability to guarantee hundreds of millions in loans for the high-end Tesla electric vehicles, Stan’s project is falling through the cracks.  There is something wrong about this, with an inventor whose record of success is so strong, and with climate stakes that are so high.  There must be a way to have key people in Washington notice what is going on, and help make this new opportunity happen.  Stan Ovshinsky is not about to give up, and neither should anyone else.

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Reader Comments

4 Replies to “Low-Cost Solar Power Should Be Close At Hand”

  1. Dan,

    My sense from talking to venture firms, banks that loan money to start ups, and lawyers who work with them is that, if anything, there is too much money chasing cleantech right now. Think dotcom 1997. Of course it is always possible that THE GREAT IDEA might be missed. But the odds are pretty low in this area right now.

    I’m also not clear that DOE has a clue about how to spend the ARRA money in ways that will lead to profitable companies and green jobs. DOE has been notoriously unsuccessful as a bank and to my knowledge has no track record as a venture investor. I’m not sure how this plays for Ovshinsky – but am responding to the broader themes in the post. Curious what your take is on this perspective.

    Best,
    Michael

  2. Steve,

    My apologies. I got here from Dan’s facebook page and didn’t realize until just now that you were the author.

    All the best,
    Michael

  3. In response to Michael Wara’s comment wondering if there is “too much money” chasing clean tech right now:

    First, thanks Michael, for offering your thoughts on this. I guess question number one is, What is too much money? That concept makes me think about the real estate market and the question people ask when homes are not moving fast enough — Are the prices too high? I would think that, by definition, prices are too high when things aren’t selling. There is a market value out there, somewhere, and if you start cutting the asking price, you will eventually find that value point.

    I would also think that, by definition, there is only too much money chasing green tech if (1) all of the promising ventures are funded and (2) people are (for that reason) throwing money at things that have no chance to make it or that don’t need the money. If you have the second condition without having achieved the first, then the primary problem is misallocation, rather than over-supply.

    The right answer for clean tech markets probably depends on one’s vantage point. When I think about the money going to Tesla, I wonder about misallocation. When I hear that ARPA-E has only been able to offer funds to one project out of a thousand, I wonder about the adequacy of funds.

    There is little doubt, however, about DOE’s inexperience in acting as a green tech banker. DOE in the last administration had the opportunity to guarantee some loans, but did not act in a timely way. The current DOE is just learning how to walk, in that regard.

    So, what was my point, in the blog entry? Primarily, it is that things aren’t working right, yet. I don’t share your feelings that the odds are low of missing the Great Idea, because there does not seem to be a systematic way of finding it. In terms of DOE funds, it is hard to tell whether we have the right people, or enough of them, asking the right questions as they study the possibilities.

  4. We are just starting to get into the Solar Power market and find it beneficial to read articles such as this. Let the sun shine baby!

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About Steven

Steven Weissman

Steve established and directed the Energy Law Program at Berkeley Law. He is currently a Lecturer at the Goldman School of Public Policy.…

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