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A Trade War May Scuttle This Huge Solar Breakthrough

by | published December 23rd, 2011

As investors in the energy sector, these are the stories that we're always looking for.

But unless you're an avid reader of technical journals, you probably missed this one.

Every energy source available has its own “breakthrough” promise that will transform the sector and make the source the most energy efficient. But it's very rare for engineers to find and actually achieve them.

We usually call these sorts of breakthroughs a “Holy Grail.”

For solar energy, that elusive prospect has been something called “Multiple Exciton Generation” (MEG).

MEG equals the amount of energy flowing from the external circuit of a solar cell divided by the amount of energy flowing into it. If the MEG measurement comes out above 100%, then look out…

Because something very big is happening.

No photovoltaic (PV) cell (the most common type of solar cell) has even been able to return to the circuit anything like the energy of the photons (i.e., light) that are hitting it.

In this sense, by definition, any cell developed so far has been inefficient on its face, limited in its ability to provide electricity to the grid at a reduced cost.

Until last week.

This Breaks the Barrier

In a December 16 paper (“Peak External Photocurrent Quantum Efficiency Exceeding 100 percent via MEG in a Quantum Dot Solar Cell”), scientists at the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado, announced they had achieved 114% MEG.

This is a huge deal.

The announcement is likely to hasten the emergence of the next generation of PVs intent on (finally) making solar power an efficient source of electricity.

The primary advantage is the expectation of reducing the overall costs of using PVs, thereby bringing solar energy into the mainstay of power generation – without the need for ongoing costly government subsidies.

Of course, this is good news for everyone.

Actual production remain several years away, but following the NREL announcement, development of so-called “Quantum Dot Solar Cells” hold distinct promise of increasing the power conversion of PVs by at least 35%.

These new cells also have the advantage of being produced by very inexpensive, high-throughput, roll-to-roll manufacturing.

And it could happen soon. Everything needed to pull this off is already here.

The combination of a significant cut in production expenses and an equally significant improvement in efficiency results in a potential advance of truly global proportions.

And that could provide a tremendous energy potential to areas in desperate need of it.

Unfortunately, we operate in a world run by politicians.

Government Intervention Could Halt Progress

For the new wave of MEG applications to make it to market, genuine global collaboration needs to take place.

Usually, that is what happens with new developments. Scientists, technicians, and business applications in a number of markets work together to refine, perfect, and improve.

In solar energy, that means central involvement by the U.S. (where the latest advances are being revealed) and China (now the world's leading manufacturer of PVs and solar wafers).

But therein rests the problem.

The U.S. government has accepted a petition from American solar producers asking that tariffs be imposed on imports of Chinese solar cells and modules.

The justification is the claim that Chinese producers have been heavily subsidized by the government in Beijing (not all of which shows up on company books). These so-called subsidies allow these producers to sell solar products at unfairly low prices.

It comes as no surprise that some Chinese companies have now asked their own government to impose tariffs on imports of American solar products, arguing that U.S.-based producers have also been heavily subsidized.

As MIT's Technology News put it on December 19, “And just like that, the production of affordable and competitive solar products has become a political liability in the world's two largest producers and consumers of energy.”

If free markets have taught us anything over the past century, it is this.

Collaboration and competition increase efficiency, reduce costs, and improve product quality.

Far from being an impediment, the global marketplace has provided the main avenue for win-win situations.

As Martin Green, the executive director of the Photovoltaics Centre of Excellence at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia, put it in the MIT article, it has been the collaboration of U.S. companies driving down the price of silicon and Chinese companies coming up with innovative and low-cost methods for producing high-quality solar cells and modules that has propelled solar power forward so far.

“Together, they represent a formidable force that has relentlessly driven down the cost of solar electricity with remarkable consistency for more than 30 years. In isolation, they're relatively powerless,” Green added.

Green ought to know, because many of the leaders at those Chinese companies revolutionizing the manufacture of PVs are his graduates from the center at UNSW.

Finding a way to continue the collaboration will have a major positive impact on the energy sector and populations around the world that depend upon it.

On the other hand, as the MIT publication aptly put it, politics as usual is resulting in “a solar trade war that could put us all in the dark.”

This is a major story that has huge investment opportunities down the road if collaboration is possible. And I'll be sure to let you know what happens no matter what…

Until then, I'm off on Monday…

Marina and I are settling our brains for a long winter's nap. Happy holidays to you and yours.

Sincerely,

Kent

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  1. Ed Nussbaum
    December 23rd, 2011 at 13:05 | #1

    More energy out than in? Sounds like perpetual motion. Is there a new fourth law of thermodynamics?

  2. Kirk Mainville
    December 23rd, 2011 at 13:15 | #2

    You really are freightening me with your perspective Dr. Kent. The U.S. does the costly research and development with tax money and the Chinese rake in the profits from selling the solar cells. You suggest co-operation in light of the fact the Chinese expend maximum effort to hack into the industrial r@d of U.S. companies.We should do it all ourselves and put lots of Americans back to work!

  3. Jay
    December 23rd, 2011 at 13:56 | #3

    I don’t know much of the mechanics discussed here, but I’d propose that the way to build a “solar sink” for overproduction of real capacity if it is to be done for the long haul, and is compatible with the “green chains” of improving ecologic manufacturability practices for impact reduction over time is to couple solar with agriculture. Discussed elsewhere, the photocapacitor (a solar battery by fellow named Tsutomu if I recall correctly) as a base energy storage fof flow management using ultraviolet levels circuitry to determine in conjunction with energy input from the sun’s absorption in solar materials could be used with OLED switching (I know somewhere I saw an R&D article on OLEDs that could either emit light or capture charge, no idea on process efficiencies) to provide a primitive spectral “light blanket” that would — if it could be shown useful for varietals in agronomy that absorb spectral efficiencies across different derivations of peak spectrum emissions — lead, in ethic and principle to agronomic speciated rapidly prototyped gangbatched thin film materials for stackable light storage and emissions capability. The areal UV and solar trigger would, as long as a small strip of stacked materials overlapping the soil nurseries were used in reduced square footage as a receding vertically stacked set of cells that lit up at night in the absence of a solar uv inhibitor on the exposed stripes, basically act as light for growth during the evening hours. By combining agronomy with the interests of the battery industry and solar photocapacitor “light blankets” triggered by lack of solar radiation, the agribusiness sector could also underwrite, for villagers and the poor, an OLED solar market that itself would improve capacity, battery technology integrations, and light yield over time while developing the overproduction market demand necessary for dodging direct sequestration to premium niches that hobble productive capacity. Combine all this with ability to replace the modules, and some kind of electrochromic indexer, like Opalux makes possible for manufacture, and you develop an Edison type lighting and agronomy production segment of industrial process technologies that leads in hopeful directions. I enjoy reading about solar, but significant physics and geopolitical problems of spatial development for the industry are exceedingly difficult to forecast and answer to in responsibly commercial production capacities regarding R&D to field development of the fledgling industry. I hope the industry does grow wings. I applaud any development that forces the equities markets into creating solar overproduction as a massive sink for brain drain options in curricular development for the energy industries. Personally, I’d like to see solar “stickers” with graphics design gangbatching of repetitive electrotransient patterning programmed into digital print design of solar cellular products in the recreational education markets with some bright coder out there swinging the “heavy iron” for creating a GraphiCAD program like Adobe Photoshop animations that translate mathematically into the circuitries and charge the designers (ha ha!) over secure finance links for delivery of adhesive backed solar animation designs that could be collected or sold over the counter in stationery stores to kids for optical animated artifacts that demonstrate the principles of technological progress to the next several generations. Such a thing would be really cool, haha. Thank you Dr. Moors for shedding light on the solar topic regardless of the actual field developments. This is my contribution to *you* (I doff my hat).

  4. Jay
    December 23rd, 2011 at 14:01 | #4

    @Jay

    Also suggested, more focus on (American context) education on innovation around creative exposure to metrology challenges. I think our kids could be among the best again, but I don’t know enough about the actual generational preservation of industry capacity — although I do know that the X Prize winner has commented on the sad loss of space era abilities that has degraded since the ’70s. Maybe we can get it back, at least I hope so.

  5. Stephen Coates
    December 23rd, 2011 at 14:14 | #5

    I agree with K.M.! The Chinese Communists are trying to do with solar what they’ve done with Rare Earth Metals. What, U.S. companies can’t deliver efficient manufacturing? We’ve given the Chinese our industrial base. Why give them our best technology???

  6. December 23rd, 2011 at 15:27 | #6

    @Jay
    Now put that into english or a simple mathematical equation.

  7. Alex White
    December 23rd, 2011 at 15:32 | #7

    I think Americans need to wake up – solar power isn’t making any difference. The last 10 years $1 trillion was spent worldwide and yet new demand outpaced this solar capacity by 3:1.

    It’s clear something needs to be done, but even if we spent $500 billion on solar in the next few years the reduction in CO2 emissions (by replacing coal/NG) would be less than 3%.

    We should be looking at burning natural gas cleaner with oxy-fuel, which has very low emissions of CO2 and no NOX. $500 billion invested in that idea would cut CO2 by +70%.

    This guy in Austin, TX has figured it out. The Introduction is here: http://www.solutioneur.com

    Let’s make some real progress and stop pretending solar is going to solve the problem – it cannot.

  8. eric taylor
    December 23rd, 2011 at 16:06 | #8

    I agree with your proposal that we not tax imports into the country
    from China on solar energy, which is failing here in the USA to be
    expediently supported and deployed by our government relative to other
    forms of energy (although tariffs in other less key areas may be important!)

  9. Ronald Sarson
    December 23rd, 2011 at 17:01 | #9

    This article seems much more appropriate for April first than for December 23rd.

  10. ian lewthwaite
    December 24th, 2011 at 03:57 | #10

    the Yanks are finding out now how they used to operate in regards to the UK, we had the brains and ideas but with the useless selfserving money men running this country, the development and profit went to the USA. Now its happening with yourselves, you blow billions of dollars on stupid political ideas which haven’t a hope in Hell of success, and leave your future wealth developement to another country, because all your politicians like ours, are only interested in being re-elected to their money tree. REmind you of the fall of the Roman Empire, bread and circuses?

  11. Tom Stiebler
    December 24th, 2011 at 11:27 | #11

    Hi Kent,
    The term ‘trade war’ may very well be more appropriate than we imagine. Please see the following link regarding cyber security firm McAfee’s recent revelation.
    http://www.zdnet.com/blog/btl/has-the-united-states-already-suffered-its-cyberwar-pearl-harbor/53901?tag=nl.e589
    Anyone care to place bets on who the unnamed villain is ?
    Tom

  12. Chris Kulpa
    December 24th, 2011 at 12:17 | #12

    @Kirk Mainville
    Exactly i’m tired as a taxpayer to give our (subsidized)or other technology to other countries to profit from it and leave our workforce in the unemployment line.

  13. SANDRA VALIENTE
    December 24th, 2011 at 13:44 | #13

    H A P P Y H O L Y D A Y S
    DR. KENT MOORS.

  14. Jeff Fleming
    December 25th, 2011 at 18:42 | #14

    135 percent? Please not a perpetual motion machine?

  15. Dumb American
    December 25th, 2011 at 21:39 | #15

    @kenneth viney We are subsidizing the Chinese solar cell industry, in may ways.
    Every heard of Solyndra & its $535M tax payer subsidy? Yes, it went bankrupt, after the Democratic campaign contributor owner laundered all the tax payer money.
    The entire plant was shipped to China, at scrap metal prices. So, China does have the latest U.S. technology, & a complete plant, subsidized by our DEBT.
    There were at least 4 previous solar cell companies, financed by the DOE, that went bankrupt & then went to China.
    The DOE has financed at least 4 more since then.
    So, there is cooperation between out government & China: we give them the latest technology at scrap metal prices.
    Yes, China does subsidize its own industry, so without import tariffs (due to UN-Fair Trade agreements: WTO), there is no way that the U.S. can possibly compete against Chinese slave labor, stolen resources, and basically free technology and equipment.
    This isn’t perpetual motion, just perpetual political notions of money laundering in the name of green technology.
    How do we get rid of the loons in D.C.?

  16. Skip Canevit
    December 26th, 2011 at 07:14 | #16

    Interesting how so many critiqued the efficiency factor w/o understanding it or obviously researching any of the articles on the announcement by the DOE group.

    First we are speaking about quantum efficiency being greater than 100%. Ken and the DOE are not saying the photo cells are providing greater than 100% energy output from the energy input. So there is no breaking of the Fourth Law of Thermal Dynamics, all is safe here.

    The simplest explanation found in my research was: “The mechanism for producing a quantum efficiency above 100 percent with solar photons is based on a process called Multiple Exciton Generation (MEG), whereby a single absorbed photon of appropriately high energy can produce more than one electron-hole pair per absorbed photon.” If you want to challenge it further, do some research. Simply put they are saying that one photon can create more than one electron hole per photon absorbed through the developed technology. Energy, which was, prior to the implementation of this technology was unable to be absorbed and was lost.

    Bottom line, this technology stands to be more efficient than fossil fuels and safer than some other alternatives.

    This is not the crux of the dilemma, the issue is: Since this technology has been developed:
    1. Where can it be produced?
    2. How can it be produced in volume?
    3. Will external factors mired by the bureaucratic factions of China and the US mire the ability to produce the solution.

    It is easy to ask for the production to be moved to the US. Not practical or prudent and will most certainly not be done in 5 years. The manufacturing infrastructure has been ripped out of the US for efficiency, cost and to meet environmental requirements in the US.

    It may be different now in the US, people may be willing to work at 1.5 to 2 times the wage rate of a Chinese production worker, but I do have some doubts here. Still beat flipping burgers. The US has lost and is not developing its process technologies for the economies of scale here required to provide a state of the art facility in the US. This situation is further exacerbated by the by the environmental constraints in the US for this type of manufacturing. (Yes, we sent all our dirty technologies to China so America could reap the benefits of an efficient and green America, but we just transplanted our polluting processes as they were to China. And now scream how China needs to clean up the environment.)

    Like it or not, China is the world’s manufacturer and India is the back room for application software. This bed was made for the US by the US & Europe and we would have to make some serious adjustments to correct it. About the only option I can come up with is we approach this new technology launch in a Joint Venture with both US and Chinese companies cooperating. Other than this, we will need to find a way to manufacture this new technology, the improvements far outweigh any other option.

  17. Larry Kaye
    December 28th, 2011 at 01:30 | #17

    Who cares about the Chinese? If this is really true, we can produce and sell to ourselves 1st. Once we saturate our power grid, thereby reducing our dependance on fossil fuels, etc, then we can worry about what someone else is doing.

  18. eric taylor
    January 9th, 2012 at 17:43 | #18

    Perhaps, there are other energy contributors, that always changing
    physics has not yet accounted for, but will through retroductive
    reasoning change the direction of contemporary physics theory
    to match the energy deficit anomaly: of more energy received than
    accounted for from measurable input. Let’s hear it from the Star Trek
    fans out there.

    Happy New Year

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