December 27, 2011


The Year in Energy: Surprising successes helped offset disappointing failures in solar, biofuels, and nuclear power. (Kevin Bullis, 12/27/11, Technology Review)

Although thin-film CIGS solar cells haven't revolutionized the solar industry, advances in manufacturing and sheer scale have led to huge drops in the price of conventional silicon solar panels, making solar power more affordable. In 2011, average prices for solar panels dropped by almost 50 percent from 2010 levels, according to an estimate from GTM Research. Just three years ago, solar panels costs more than three times what they do now. Innovations introduced this year could lead to even lower prices. One technology, developed first at BP Solar but commercialized first in China, could cut the cost of making high-quality crystalline silicon in half. Other advances, such as Suntech's Pluto technology, which combines a number of innovations to produce a record-efficiency solar cell, and silicon ink from Innovalight, which increases power output by improving electrical connections, are being ramped up for large-scale production, promising to keep reducing the cost per watt of solar power. 

And while Solyndra died, other advanced thin-film manufacturers are making progress, including CIGS solar-panel manufacturer Solar Frontier, which opened a huge, 1,000-megawatt factory in Japan. Researchers are continuing to push solar-cell technology forward. A startup called Alta Devices, based in Santa Clara, California, has built world-record solar cells from thin-film gallium arsenide.

There's also some good news for advanced biofuels. The startup Amyris started producing chemicals from sugarcane. Three advanced-biofuels companies began construction on commercial ethanol plants in the United States, and another, Mascoma, announced that it has raised all the funding it needs to build one starting early next year. Meanwhile, startups continue to develop new ways to convert biomass and other abundant sources into fuels--including some that can directly replace gasoline or jet fuel.

While progress is slow on nuclear power in the United States, novel technology for small, modular reactors appears to be getting traction. 

Batteries remain expensive, but early-stage technical advances could change that. One company hopes to eliminate liquid electrolytes and much of the supporting material in a battery. Such efforts could double batteries' energy storage capacity and greatly expand the possibilities of electric vehicles. Another demonstrated a prototype that could cut the cost of batteries in half. Advances in fuel cells that efficiently convert energy in fuels such as gasoline to electricity could help increase the range of electric cars, making them more practical.

If new battery technologies don't work, maybe the model developed by Better Place will. The company, which has received more than its fair share of media attention for its idea of selling cars and miles the way cellular carriers sell phones and minutes, has now actually built something. It's nearly finished an Israeli network of charging stations and robotic battery-swap stations that will eliminate the "range anxiety" now limiting the appeal of electric cars--the fear of depleting your battery before you reach your destination. It could also help make electric vehicles more affordable, since drivers don't have to buy the car's battery.
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Posted by at December 27, 2011 7:22 AM

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