May 13, 2007
Solar Concentrators To Lower Home Solar Energy Costs

Kevin Bullis of MIT's Technology Review reports on a new solar photovoltaic technology developed by Pasadena California start-up Soliant Energy which lowers the cost of photovoltaic power by use of a compact roof-mountable solar concentrator design.

Soliant has designed a solar concentrator that tracks the sun throughout the day but is lighter and not pole-mounted. The system fits in a rectangular frame and is mounted to the roof with the same hardware that's used for conventional flat solar panels. Yet the devices will likely cost half as much as a conventional solar panel, says Hines. A second-generation design, which concentrates light more and uses better photovoltaics, could cost a quarter as much. He says that a more advanced design should be ready by 2010.

The Soliant design combines both lenses and mirrors to create a more compact system. Each module is made of rows of aluminum troughs, each about the width and depth of a gutter. These troughs are mounted inside a rectangular frame and can tilt in unison from side to side to follow the sun.

Existing solar concentrators are too large and complicated to mount on residential roofs.

Due to my expectation that we'll see truly disruptive technologies come to market, I've long been skeptical of 50 and 100 year projections of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels consumption. There's no way we are going to get out 30 years from where we are now without the development of a variety of technologies that make solar photovoltaics, wind, batteries, nuclear, and other non-polluting power sources much cheaper.

This report above provides an example of how we can expect disruptive technologies to come out of entrepreneurial start-ups. The higher the price of oil gets the more energy technology innovation we are going to witness.

We could speed up the rate of innovation by taxing fossil fuels or by government funding of more energy research. I prefer the latter approach over the former because I think it would require less cash shifted through government hands. Better a $10 billion a year research budget than several hundreds of billions per year of green taxes.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 May 13 01:50 PM  Energy Solar

carl said at May 13, 2007 2:50 PM:

Similar tech but from a more "indie" startup:

cancer_man said at May 13, 2007 11:25 PM:

Actully, we can't really speed up the time that solar becomes widespread. Think about it this way. If it were 1980 and the government poured in huge amounts of money into computer chips (like Japan in the 1980s) do you really think we'd have 2005 speed chips in 1990? The 5% cost reduction per year we see with solar is similar.

Having said that, I'm definately opposed to subsidizing oil, nuclear or coal.

S. Cormack said at May 14, 2007 8:37 AM:

Seems to me that unless your roof has a true south orientation these tracking panels wouldn't work.

Ivan said at May 14, 2007 8:41 AM:

Connect your policy ideas:
Tax petroleum and use the funds exclusively for alternative energy research.

That would mean hundreds of billions in research grants.

I do appreciate the lack of trust of government with the money.

Mike VandeVelde said at May 14, 2007 10:50 AM:

Taxing petroleum would have the most negative impact on the poor. I think it goes too far. Removing all subsidies has the same negative effect on the poor, but is something people could find much easier to support.

Take the money saved by eliminating subsides and pour it into research. Tax breaks for certain technologies move to slowly to keep up with the latest and most beneficial inventions, and end up being the same as subsidies for the petroleum industry - an advantage for the inferior.

That being said, it's great to hear about all the innovative technologies coming out of research into harnessing the energy of the sun. It is the largest power source in the solar system after all! And renewable, in the few billions of years time frame! Tidal and wind seem like (very useful yes) small potatoes next to solar. The silicon panels of decades past weren't really much of an ideal solution, but they've gotten us to this point and the road ahead looks *bright*!

Randall Parker said at May 14, 2007 11:24 PM:


So then do you think that biomedical science and biotechnology would advance just as fast without government research funding?

The industrialized countries which spend less than the US on biomedical research generate less new knowledge and less new treatments. Look at Europe vs the US. I wrote a post showing the huge difference in US versus European government biomedical research funding. Well, the US generates many more advances.

Nick said at May 15, 2007 12:08 PM:

The difference is that Intel & others were spending an enormous amount on chip R&D, so government spending wasn't needed. Health and energy R&D have much less certain returns, hence the need for government support.

cancer_man said at May 15, 2007 6:22 PM:

One shouldn't reach a simple conclusion that the Euopean government spends less on biomedical research than the US and subsequently generates less new knowledge than the US. There are complex factors which need to be sorted out. For example, US universities are generally better than Euoropean ones and attrct top talent from around the world.
Part of that may be due to government funding, but there are other reasons as well.

There are many exmples of larage amounts of government funding being eclipsed by even small startup investment. Look at the billions of dollars the Japanese government poured into HDTV in the 1980s only to have American firms make the breakthroughs in the 1990s.

The solar industry now looks over-funded after a major increase in non government venture capital. This often happens when an industry looks hot.

Randall Parker said at May 16, 2007 6:26 PM:


I'm for government funding of energy research in large part because I expect it will reduce government taxing of fossil fuels energy.

Jerry Martinson said at May 17, 2007 3:03 AM:

I think the talents of much of "Silicon Valley" could be very productively employed by making things more efficient. The high-tech industry can start with their own products which waste enormous amounts of electricity because of a lack of creative regulation. When I was a kid in college, I thought that energy efficiency was "arbitraged-out" at something approaching economically optimal levels. Real world experience as an engineer has taught me otherwise.

When you buy a $600PC that consumes 200W and you keep it on all the time as most people do since the power save features usually don't work right when you're hooked up to the internet and want your PC to wake up in less than 20 seconds, over 5 years at $0.10per kWH, you've wasted over $800 in electricity. These problems can be solved and have been solved in laptops. However, to make a PC sip power like a laptop, it would add a slight amount of money to the purchase price of the PC and nobody will buy one that costs more money with some weak claim that it will consume less power. The regulations that do exist assume completely unrealistic usage patters of IT equipment. This is a clear case of market failure. Your hard drive at work in your PC, which is an unnecessary vestigial organ created before enterprise networking, is burning huge amounts of power while almost never getting used. If the "PC" architecture was shifted to store nearly everything on the network, you could just use a solid state NAND drive on your PC which consumes almost nothing when unused. Your performance would be faster because the files you need would be "paged" in the network servers large shared memory spread across all users rather because network "ping" time is a fraction of hard disk seek time.

When a whole company has wasteful IT machines like this, the facilities guy adds all this wasted computer power stuff up to the tonnes of cooling required for the hottest day in July and sizes the chillers to be 25% larger than that. The thinking might be that he'd do a simple calculation and buy the optimally energy efficient system. However because the system is so oversized, 95% of the time the system runs at an inefficiently low duty cycle, alternately freezing and boiling the occupants between cycles in the spring and fall.

Your cable/ADSL modem and "firewall" router have the cheapest power supply and a little CPU in it and is on for it's whole life. The little CPU inside is probably cooking at the highest voltage that it can so that the manufacturing yields are as high as possible. Little attempt is made to make these CPU devices "sleep" during inactivity. Little attempt is made to make the AC/DC converter efficient. Each watt that a IT device consumes costs about $5 in electricity over it's lifetime. A trivial amount of engineering work could greatly decrease this but it is almost never done.

The waste that IT devices create gets compounded with waste upstream in the power generation/distribution system and there's complete market failure incentivize the manufacturers of IT equipment to value power at anything greater than $0 per watt.

TheBaldGuy said at June 29, 2007 3:08 PM:

The regulations that do exist assume completely unrealistic usage patters of IT equipment. This is a clear case of market failure.

Wow, talk about dissonance. Unrealistic government regulations indicating a case of market failure? Blaming reality for a false view of reality being wrong?

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