Thinking Tech

America's solar energy rival

Posting in Energy

Practical Israeli systems that pay for themselves quickly and don't require infrastructure hold the greatest promise right now.

A lot of publishers are banging the drum for China as America's chief rival in solar energy.

(Picture from the University of Texas, originally credited to the CIA.)

China's policy on solar is similar to America's. You can get half the cost of your rooftop solar installation as a direct subsidy. There is free land, research cash, and low-interest bank loans available.

Both countries are using state as well as national policy to drive change.

Chinese producers have recently taken advantage of falling prices to dump solar panels into the American market, but there's a dirty secret hidden behind a recent New York Times profile on the sector.

Chinese technology is inefficient, and its goals are in fact meager, less than half the coal-fired capacity it adds each year.

There is a bigger problem for both American and Chinese plans. Sprawl. Current projects are based on the same system as coal and nuclear power, bulk delivery of electricity over power lines.

This bigger-is-better attitude leads to big dreams. Use the Sahara to power Europe. Beam power down from space.

But there is another way to go. Innovation.

A joint American and Australian team recently demonstrated solar panels with 43% efficiency. A combination of materials, not just silicon, were used to access solar rays beyond the range of sight.

Innovations in both materials and mass production are coming at a rapid rate, meaning today's gigantic solar projects will be highly inefficient long before they get into production.

So the policy of India, which is looking at lighting and heating systems that each require little power, and can thus be generated on-site, are looking very interesting. We're talking about things like solar water heaters and pumps, solar cookers, solar lighting for streets and homes. Low-tech but also low-cost.

Still, if there is a country we, or our oil-producing friends in the Middle East, should worry about when it comes to solar energy production, the answer is easy to find.

Israel.

Israeli innovation tends to be practical, like a solar boiler from the 1950s, known locally as a "dude shemesh." It's a modified electric boiler linked by pipes to glass collector plates. Water circulates through the plates during the day, returning to the boilers hot. And the water retains this heat at night.

It's these kinds of simple ideas, practical systems that can pay for themselves quickly and don't require enormous infrastructure, that hold the greatest promise right now, while materials science and manufacturing bring solar panels to an affordable efficiency.

My guess is more of these will come from Israel than anywhere else. Necessity is the mother of invention.

Share this

Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure