In a University of California at Berkeley press release announcing a study by professor Severin Borenstein, the professor argued that governments shouldn’t waste money subsidizing installations using today’s solar technology.
Instead, he said, they should invest in the research and development of more economic technologies. "We need a major scientific breakthrough, and we won’t get it by putting panels on houses," he said. "It is going to come from the labs."
While the argument has definitely sparked criticism -- and in some cases, outrage -- from an industry pushing for tax credits for renewable-energy installations, plenty of scientists and entrepreneurs think they have the next-generation technology Borenstein is looking for.
Examples in the news in just the last week include Ausra, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based concentrating solar-thermal startup that announced a first round of $40 million in venture-capital funding in September and last week raised $30 million in venture debt, according to CNET.
The company claims it can potentially cut costs as low as 6.7 cents per kilowatt-hour from an estimated 16 to 18 cents per kilowatt-hour today by replacing expensive hand-built solar troughs with panels that can be made on a production line and dropped into place with a forklift.
Another example is Stirling Energy Systems, which said last week it had set a new record for solar-conversion efficiency with Sandia National Laboratories. According to the partners, the system converted 31.25 percent of the sunlight that hit the collectors into energy, toppling the previous record of 29.4 percent.
The gain, which could result in more energy using less equipment, came from a prototype power plant using six solar dishes with 82 mirrors each. The dishes concentrate the sun’s beams onto a receiver, which uses heat to run a Stirling engine, making electricity.
Earlier this month, another solar-thermal company, Infinia Corp., also snagged $50 million for a system that draws on engine technology to convert the sun’s heat into electricity (see Infinia Gets $50M for Engine-Powered Solar).
Pythagoras Solar, which plans to release products early next year, claims its technology combining software models, optic design, semiconductor processes and manufacturing techniques will "dramatically" change the economics of solar power.
New players also are bringing technologies and processes from other industries into solar (click here to continue to the next section).