Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Energy and the Future

Its been a while since I blogged and that has been, in part, due to a hectic schedule. Last Tuesday, February 12th, I helped put on an event on Energy and the Future with the MIT Club of Northern California Semiconductor Series. The speaker was Dr. Amit Kumar, CEO of Combimatrix, who did photovoltaic research at Caltech, Stanford and Harvard. I have written about a previous talk at PARC by Dr. Kumar in October 2007. He compares and contrasts various energy sources with a very analytical approach and presents a great overview of the global energy picture.

The talk was sold out and the enthusiastic audience posed several interesting questions. Since the data presented was very similar to the talk in October, I will not repeat it here. You can see my previous post in October, if there is interest. However, the questions the audience and Dr. Kumar himself posed and answered are interesting. Dr. Kumar feels that oil prices will continue to trend up in the future with some fluctuations as in the past decades. This is an interesting question in itself and I will look at it more closely in a future post, since much of the future of alternative energy sources may depend on the answer.

Dr. Kumar expects energy usage to double worldwide in 30 to 50 years from 15TW (Terawatts) to about 30TW. With fossil fuels as a primary source, cost goes up and carbon emissions increase with several complications. Solar energy provides a very viable way to address the whole energy issue, but several issues such as cost, storage and inverters have to be addressed with technological advances. The ultimate solution may be a combination of solar, hydro, wind and nuclear (fission and fusion). But, the effort required is bigger than the Manhattan or Apollo projects to effect serious change. Opportunities exist in solar in several areas - silicon supply or other materials, new types of cells, thin films, storage, catalysts for hydrogen evolution, inverters and electric vehicles.

Dr. Kumar sees plenty of employment opportunities in the Valley and beyond with the push for alternative energy, for both fresh graduates and experienced professionals.

But the Mercury News presents a dissenting view from the Director of the UC Energy Institute and UC Berkeley business professor, Severin Borenstein. Professor Borenstein is quoted as saying that we are throwing away money by installing current solar PV technology, especially on houses. He argues against Government subsidies and California's million solar roofs programs. As was to be expected, he met with a barrage of criticism from the solar industry :-) The post makes for interesting reading. But, the professor is not fazed and defends his views. You can find Professor Borenstein's bio here and his publications including the incendiary one noted above, "The Market Value and Cost of Solar Photovoltaic Electricity Production" here. Good to note Prof. Borenstein's MIT connections :-) (Thanks to Ed Gunther for suggesting I provide a link to the paper referred to ).

Regardless of the scientific or economic correctness of Professor Borenstein's views, I think the industry will be well served by all the activity and attention paid to alternative energy. Silicon Valley has always been characterized by risk and reward. Without the promise of reward, there would be very little risk taking. Just funding University or academic research in the hope of a scientific breakthrough eventually may make economic sense from one point of view, but, if you look at technology development in Silicon Valley, the industry and risk taking have pushed the edge much faster than traditional methods.


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