After we published Break Through last fall we constantly heard from old-school environmentalists like the Center for American Progress blogger Joe Romm that we don't need technological breakthroughs. (Romm was careful to narrowly define "breakthrough" as the invention of a brand new technology, even though we had explicitly defined it as "breakthroughs in performance and price.")
One of the chief barriers to dealing with global warming is that clean energy remains much more expensive than fossil fuels. As long as that remains the case, neither rich countries like the U.S. nor poor countries like China are going to move to clean energy sources any time soon. What to do? We argue that major federal investments in clean energy are required to scale up the technologies and bring down their price.
Under the most likely scenario, the cost of a 10-kilowatt solar system would be three or four times as much as the electricity it'll produce, Borenstein found. And even using a more favorable set of criteria, the cost would still be as much as 80 percent more than the value of the electricity it will produce.
Borenstein's research wasn't sponsored by any group or organization or industry, and the UC Energy Institute does non-partisan research, he said.
"I have nothing against solar PV and I hope it gets better," he said. "It's just very expensive and not terribly efficient."
What to do?
Borenstein argues against government subsidies, such as California's million-solar-roofs program, and for more research-and-development money from the U.S. and state governments to develop more efficient solar systems.
"We need a major scientific breakthrough, and we won't get it by putting panels up on houses," he said.
One idea we've toyed with is simply buying down the price of solar panels through government contracts with private firms over a 10 - 20 year period. Manufacturing and materials advances would bring down the price over time, and firms that get breakthroughs in performance and price would have an advantage in winning future contracts. Would Professor Borenstein support such an initiative? We're requested an interview so hopefully we'll find out soon.