Is energy independence finally in sight?

After years of hope and hype, there seems to be visible movement toward new energy sources that stand a decent chance in market competition with current oil, natural gas and coal.
In an important article article in today's Opinionjournal.com, James Woolsey argues that a new mix of hydrocarbon energy technologies will begin to free us from Middle East energy dependence in the foreseeable future. Woolsey looks for a mix of oil shale, coal liquifaction, biomass, and hybrid car technology to start making a substantial difference. Woolsey is co-chair of the Committee on the Present Danger, former Director of Central Intelligence, and one of the most interesting thinkers around. He has thought very seriously about these matters, and believes the technologies are steadily moving to the market. 

In a separate development, the Department of Energy has just announced a breakthrough in the efficiency of solar to electricity conversion. Boeing-Spectrolab achieved the 40 percent efficiency, more than twice a previous record, using a sunlight concentrator and a "multijunction converter". This is much like a normal solar voltage converter with several novel features, including the ability to convert the infrared and ultraviolet light spectrum, about half of the energy in sunlight, which has not been usable before.

The Department of Energy claims that
"This breakthrough may lead to systems with an installation cost of only $3 per watt, producing electricity at a cost of 8-10 cents per kilowatt/hour, making solar electricity a more cost-competitive and integral part of our nation's energy mix."
A writer for Slashdot maintains that:

"A page linked from Wikipedia's article on solar energy calculates the land area that would need to be covered by solar collectors at 8% efficiency to meet the world's energy needs (using 2003 figures). At 40% efficiency, it looks like a square 265 miles on a side in the American southwest would do it."
But with solar it makes more sense to place the collectors close to users. With a basically simple technology, a highly distributed energy production system becomes possible. Distributed networks of solar sources are more robust and resistant to disruption than centralized plants. Right now a great deal of the oil for the industrialized world goes through the Persian Gulf, a classic strategic bottle-neck that is inherently vulnerable to disruption, especially given Ahmadinejad's imperialism rearing its ugly head nearby in Tehran.

Are these technologies marketable? A lot of good ideas never make it to the real world. At the target of 8-10 cents per kW/hr, solar would not need extraordinary subsidies, once it is mass-produced.

MIT's Technology Review argues that modern solar cells are essentially plastic sheets, much easier to make on a large scale than brittle silicon junctions. Other proposals use sealed modules, like car headlights, which combine a lens with the multi-junction materials.
The Technology Review quotes one observer:
"There's a lot of uncertainty in this area, where historically there's been a lot of hype that just hasn't been delivered ... The biggest news for me is that serious solar people, over the course of the last year, have made notable commitments to (solar) concentrators."
It's hard to predict whether and how a set of promising ideas will impact the market. But James Woolsey believes we will soon have a better mix of sources for carbohydrate-based energy. And various scientists, technologists and economists are raising their hopes for economically competitive solar energy.

The incentives for research and development are higher than ever today --- not because of the usual eco-scares, but because industrial giants like China, India, the US, and Europe are less and less comfortable with a disruptable supply chain.

The market will not change instantly, but over the next ten years our dependence on OPEC is likely to relax, as we go to multiple, reliable sources. The more alternatives arise, the less of a stranglehold OPEC countries will have. Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia may gradually have to live with a more competitive energy market, and the rest of the world will start to breathe easier.
After years of hope and hype, there seems to be visible movement toward new energy sources that stand a decent chance in market competition with current oil, natural gas and coal.
In an important article article in today's Opinionjournal.com, James Woolsey argues that a new mix of hydrocarbon energy technologies will begin to free us from Middle East energy dependence in the foreseeable future. Woolsey looks for a mix of oil shale, coal liquifaction, biomass, and hybrid car technology to start making a substantial difference. Woolsey is co-chair of the Committee on the Present Danger, former Director of Central Intelligence, and one of the most interesting thinkers around. He has thought very seriously about these matters, and believes the technologies are steadily moving to the market. 

In a separate development, the Department of Energy has just announced a breakthrough in the efficiency of solar to electricity conversion. Boeing-Spectrolab achieved the 40 percent efficiency, more than twice a previous record, using a sunlight concentrator and a "multijunction converter". This is much like a normal solar voltage converter with several novel features, including the ability to convert the infrared and ultraviolet light spectrum, about half of the energy in sunlight, which has not been usable before.

The Department of Energy claims that
"This breakthrough may lead to systems with an installation cost of only $3 per watt, producing electricity at a cost of 8-10 cents per kilowatt/hour, making solar electricity a more cost-competitive and integral part of our nation's energy mix."
A writer for Slashdot maintains that:

"A page linked from Wikipedia's article on solar energy calculates the land area that would need to be covered by solar collectors at 8% efficiency to meet the world's energy needs (using 2003 figures). At 40% efficiency, it looks like a square 265 miles on a side in the American southwest would do it."
But with solar it makes more sense to place the collectors close to users. With a basically simple technology, a highly distributed energy production system becomes possible. Distributed networks of solar sources are more robust and resistant to disruption than centralized plants. Right now a great deal of the oil for the industrialized world goes through the Persian Gulf, a classic strategic bottle-neck that is inherently vulnerable to disruption, especially given Ahmadinejad's imperialism rearing its ugly head nearby in Tehran.

Are these technologies marketable? A lot of good ideas never make it to the real world. At the target of 8-10 cents per kW/hr, solar would not need extraordinary subsidies, once it is mass-produced.

MIT's Technology Review argues that modern solar cells are essentially plastic sheets, much easier to make on a large scale than brittle silicon junctions. Other proposals use sealed modules, like car headlights, which combine a lens with the multi-junction materials.
The Technology Review quotes one observer:
"There's a lot of uncertainty in this area, where historically there's been a lot of hype that just hasn't been delivered ... The biggest news for me is that serious solar people, over the course of the last year, have made notable commitments to (solar) concentrators."
It's hard to predict whether and how a set of promising ideas will impact the market. But James Woolsey believes we will soon have a better mix of sources for carbohydrate-based energy. And various scientists, technologists and economists are raising their hopes for economically competitive solar energy.

The incentives for research and development are higher than ever today --- not because of the usual eco-scares, but because industrial giants like China, India, the US, and Europe are less and less comfortable with a disruptable supply chain.

The market will not change instantly, but over the next ten years our dependence on OPEC is likely to relax, as we go to multiple, reliable sources. The more alternatives arise, the less of a stranglehold OPEC countries will have. Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia may gradually have to live with a more competitive energy market, and the rest of the world will start to breathe easier.