Andrew Revkin at the New York Times Dot Earth blog published a blog this morning titled Should Major Emitters Focus on the Sun. Within his blog is a presentation with graphs of historical research investments in various energy technologies that shows a small share of the overall budgets being provided to solar power research.
Andy’s interpretation of that graph is a common one – he wonders if giving solar more respect and research money would allow it to catch up to some of the other energy sources on the graph. In his view, the rather small relative investment demonstrates the lack of will to enter into an “energy quest”. As part of the presentation associated with his blog entry, he quotes one of my heroes:
I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait till oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”
Thomas Edison, speaking to Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone in 1931, not long before his death.
When I made a comment suggesting that Edison’s bet might have been considerably different if he made it a dozen years later, after Fermi had proven that a self-sustaining fission reaction was possible, Andy gave me the respect of responding.
I figured it might be worth sharing my response, just in case you did not want to wade through the other 27 or so comments on the post.
Andy Revkin wrote the following in response to my comment about Edison and the payoff of fission research compared to solar energy research:
“Interesting thought. It’s important to note, in looking at the graphs showing rich-country investment in energy research, that nuclear (fusion and fission) have long gotten a much larger piece of the R&D pie than solar, so just wondering here if the solar component needs more respect (not that nuclear needs less).”
Andy – it would also be enlightening to look at your graph on a per unit energy output basis to get an idea for the return on investment that the research dollars have produced.
I grant that the total dollar figure associated with fission is large, but so is the amount of emission free energy that gets produced every year, especially when considering just how new the basic physics of the technology are. The sun has always been in the sky and providing humans with evidence that it exists and has energy that can be captured. In contrast, humans had no idea that fission was even possible before 1938 and were not sure that it could be configured into a controllable, self-sustaining reaction until December 2, 1942. My father was an adult when fission was proven; only two generations of engineers have been working to develop the potential.
The investments have been driven by the fact that tens of thousands of scientists and engineers all around the world have not only recognized the potential, but have proven it to “show-me” political decision makers who control budgets. There is no doubt that there has been serious, steadfast opposition to making the investments, especially from the established energy industries who claimed that their tax dollars were being spent on their competition.
Even if you do not agree that investment per unit output is a more reasonable metric than total dollars, wouldn’t it be more fair to graph NET government investment, a graph that would give credit for the income generated to pay back the initial research? In the case of fission, US electrical power utilities produce approximately 800 terrawatt-hours of electricity every year and generate a revenue stream of approximately $64 billion dollars by selling that power (at an average wholesale selling price of 8 cents per kilowatt hour). They pay corporate taxes, waste disposal fees on the order of $800 million per year, and pay local property taxes in the hundreds of millions per year. In rate regulated territories, they provide a continuing supply of low cost electricity that will last at least 20 more years. They employ about 400-800 well paid workers in each plant, plus at least that many in supporting roles.
I do not advocating increased research investment in atomic fission by federal governments, but I am also not in favor of mandates or subsidies designed to encourage deployment of solar technologies that have demonstrated that they cannot make it in the market without continued subsidies. Nearly all current solar subsidies are direct payments to people at the higher end of the income bracket to reduce the cost of installing systems. There is something immoral about raising electrical power rates on all customers to subsidize upper middle class status symbols.
I am most definitely OPPOSED to subsidies, renewable portfolio standards and pricing systems that encourage developers to carpet vast swaths of fragile desert land with industrial scale solar power systems. I agree with Senator Dianne Feinstein, who recently queried Secretary of Energy Chu about the land rush that is developing in the southern California desert.
That is a short sighted way to spend money, especially since there is a high probability that the projects will end up as abandoned hulks for future generations to clean up.
Publisher, Atomic Insights
Host and producer, The Atomic Show Podcast