Friday, August 7, 2009

The Economist on Solar

(Hat tip to Tim.) The Economist, which is known for its position on photovoltaics (too expensive), has published a video interview with an Israeli researcher. The interview contains a number of inaccurate statements, some of which come from the interviewer, and one of which comes from the interviewee.

The first quite telling mistake that the interviewer makes is speaking of "silicone" instead of "silicon -- though I cannot be sure that the English do not pronounce both of them the same. I know that the English researchers I have spoken with would refer to the former as the stuff used in breast implants and the latter as the stuff used to make solar cells. It's really a beginner's mistake.

The interviewer also says that "Jerusalem... gets up to 800 watts of energy from the sun per square meter." I have no idea what he is referring to here. Even Freiburg, Germany, easily peaks at over 1000 watts per square meter, and I would assume that the figure is easily double that in Jerusalem. It could even be close to triple the figure in Freiburg.

And then there is the statement by the researcher herself, Renata Reisfeld, that solar power currently costs 30 times as much as standard electricity. This cannot be. The cheapest prices I have seen for coal power are around three cents per kilowatt-hour, which would put solar at 90 cents per kilowatt hour. Gainesville, Florida, currently only pays 32 cents per kilowatt-hour for solar power, and that still provides a profit. And prices are plummeting. Market researchers generally agree that that price will be cut in half just in another three or four years.

Reisfeld is not working on new technology, but rather one that has been around -- albeit marginally -- at least since the 1970s. I asked a German researcher working in the same field as her, and he said that Reisfeld is indeed a solar pioneer who has been in the field for a long time, and he agreed with her that this new technology is getting ready to hit the market.

So if you want a glimpse of a new type of solar panel -- these will be called "solar collectors" -- you can listen to the video to get the technical description, but be careful about some of the other claims...

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