Tim Young, CEO, Hypersolar
The United States reached its $14 trillion debt ceiling back on May 16th. While the wrangling is still underway in Congress on a deal to raise the limit, the inescapable fact is that budgetary constraints are limiting funding for energy innovation. Faced with this challenge, the nation has no choice — given the importance of energy to our security, prosperity and well being — but to be more selective about how we spend the limited funds we have available. Obama’s “Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future” has put solar in the spotlight, which will attract additional funds for innovation. But the plan needs to identify strategies to promote the funding of what are called “disruptive technologies” — technologies that represent game-changing breakthroughs — as opposed to continuing to pour money into the accelerated deployment of “sustained technologies,” or traditional technologies that may not be economically viable over the long term without government subsidies.
The goal of federal energy policies such as the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot initiative is to make solar technologies cost-competitive with other forms of energy by reducing the cost of solar by about 75 percent before the year 2020 under the premise that reducing the cost of solar to equal that of energy from traditional sources (or 5 to 6 cents per kilowatt hour without subsidies) will result in the rapid, large-scale adoption of solar. But it is my belief this goal will not be achieved through incremental improvements in solar cell efficiency; rather, it will be achieved by the development of a disruptive technology that will change the market for solar in an unexpected way. I believe the HyperSolar technology has the ability to dramatically alter the market for solar in the same way that the introduction of the Internet or the debut of the Ford Model T, which made low-cost automobiles available to the masses, dramatically altered the technology and automobile industries.
The solar cell is inherently inefficient. The original solar cell, which was invented in 1883, had an energy-conversion efficiency of less than 1 percent, while the efficiency of the first viable photovoltaic cell, Bell Labs’ “Solar Battery,” which was developed in 1954, was about 6 percent. After nearly 130 years of research and development, the average energy conversion efficiency of the solar cell is now only about 15 percent, meaning that only a fraction of the sun’s energy is converted into electricity. Moreover, the silicon solar cell appears to be reaching its theoretical limit of efficiency. Because of this, large numbers of expensive solar cells have to be used in order to generate substantial amounts of electricity. While other types of cell materials are more efficient, they are even more expensive.
In order to become competitive with energy generated from traditional sources, solar has to become more efficient. Rather than focusing on incremental improvements in cell efficiency, HyperSolar is developing a breakthrough technology that can be viewed as a “performance enhancer” for solar. The HyperSolar technology takes the form of an acrylic topsheet that, when applied to a solar panel, boosts performance by 300 percent. As a result, the number of cells, the most expensive element of a panel, can be reduced by 66 percent, with a corresponding reduction in cost. HyperSolar believes that it will eventually achieve concentrations of 400 percent. Moreover, although the HyperSolar technology is now being developed for use with silicon cells, it can be used with any type of cell material: whatever a cell’s efficiency, HyperSolar will boost it.
The photovoltaics subprogram of the SunShot initiative focuses on new devices and processes, prototype design and pilot production and systems development and manufacturing. This is all good, but more funding is needed for disruptive technologies. As President Obama has noted, because of the fundamentally unpredictable nature of technological progress, “None of us can predict with certainty what the next new industry will be….” When it comes to trickle-down economics, the most efficient means of stimulating economic development is through the creation of a reservoir of funding for innovative technologies with the potential to leapfrog over sustained technologies in terms of environmental benefits, easy scalability and rapid payback. In short, we need technologies that will boost performance by 500 or 1,000 percent, not 1 or 2 percent.