The evolution of solar photovoltaic technology and popularity over the last decade serves as an example of how continued investment in early-stage innovation can result in reduced cost and increased availability of viable alternative energy production, said Dan Arvizu, director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Arvizu was a keynote speaker at the Global New Energy Summit held at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo., this week.
He said the government needs to support energy innovation and invest in the science in order to reduce the risk for private sector investors who will adopt the technologies as they mature.
He said we need a more aggressive system for funding and supporting basic research into the applied research realm.
Arvizu noted that while the world has installed gigawatts and gigawatts of renewable energy production, including hydro, the percentage of energy produced from renewable sources globally has dropped from 19.5 percent in 1990 to 18.5 percent in 2010.
“It’s not that progress isn’t being made,” he said. “It’s just that we’re not progressing fast enough.”
The problem, he said, is that we need to accept that energy in general is a highly-subsidized field and shift our subsidies toward supporting new energy research.
“We are falling behind,” Arvizu said. “And if we are going to capture that innovation, we need a new system.”
He told the crowd of scientists, businessmen, engineers and entrepreneurs about how his national lab had evolved from a solar testing facility into a government-run renewable energy center.
Because of NREL’s history in solar, Arvizu said, they have quantifiable evidence of how investing in early stage innovation can result in lower-cost, cleaner power choices.
The lab was researching photovoltaics in their traditional monocrystalline and polycrystalline forms in the early 1990s when the idea of thin-film first started showing up there, he said.
Researchers started looking for new ways to make solar more affordable and found cadmium telluride, Arvizu said.
Today, First Solar, one of the largest and most successful solar manufacturers in the world, focuses on thin-film, he said.
“We have a viable pathway for reducing the cost of technology,” Arvizu said.
It’s all about reducing the risk for private investors and getting the technology off its wobbly baby feet and ready to run.
“The global appetite for energy will continue for a long, long time,” Arvizu said.