Last week, the New York Times published a series of reports asking why, after half a century of effort and with US surveys indicating strong support for solar energy, the alternative power source still only accounts for 0.01 percent of energy produced in the US. Moreover, use of solar power is expected to rise by only between 2 percent and 3 percent in the next half-century, the US Department of Energy estimates.
The newspaper concluded that solar energy research and development had always lacked necessary government support.
Government funding of research has favored cutting-edge science and high-profile technology. For years, international energy research budgets have mostly been spent on nuclear energy technology. The EU, the US, China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and India are planning to spend NT$330 billion (US$9.128 billion) to build an experimental nuclear fusion reactor in France, even though that technology is still 40 or 50 years away from producing power.
Ever since countries began working to reduce emissions, governments have focused investment on development and production of biomass energy. Under pressure from farmers and the US Congress, Washington has put most additional funding into bioethanol and biodiesel. Although the use of biofuel remains under 2 percent of energy consumption, it has already had a serious impact on global food production and prices.
Researchers are concerned that other renewable energy sources, such as wind, geothermal energy and ocean wave energy, require too much space to become mainstream. Research has shown that carbohydrate fuel stored in sea ice can be harvested, but this is of little use in reducing emissions because using it releases carbon dioxide. Moreover, usable carbon dioxide recycling and storage technology is still at least 20 to 30 years away.
The public and researchers support the use of solar energy. In the past, the government mistakenly assumed that solar power technology had already matured, and that improving the efficiency and lowering prices should be the industry's responsibility. Therefore, it didn't support research and development, and producers didn't want to risk building factories. The situation has improved recently, however.
The efficiency of thin-film solar cells is still only about 20 percent. Using nanotechnology, efficiency can be boosted significantly. With reflectors focusing the light, technology to produce electricity from solar heat will soon be ready to be put to use.
Germany and Japan are the countries most actively promoting solar energy. In addition to improving its energy policy, the German government has invested NT$55 billion in solar energy research and development over the past two decades. The industry employs 43,000 people, with an annual output value of NT$230 billion, or about 50 percent of the global total. Within 15 years, it will employ 200,000 people and its annual production value will surpass NT$1 trillion.
Of course, the availability of sunlight as a source varies according to climate, geographical environment, season and everyday weather. Whether or not the sun can become a mainstream source of energy will depend on breakthroughs in technology for storing and transferring energy. As such, US President George W. Bush and Congress have drawn up a plan to boost the budget for solar technology research and development.