When government steps out of its legitimate role supporting basic scientific research, and attempts to play venture capitalist, the results are usually disastrous. It is clear that, unlike venture capitalists, politicians are not accountable to either investors or the SEC. Presidents and legislators are accountable only to the voters. If we were to judge simply by America's current national debt, wise stewardship of taxpayers' money is obviously not a major voter concern.
Some of the best money the US government has ever spent, however, has been invested in basic scientific research. The payoff has rarely been as direct as, for example, the payoff from the Defense Department's investment in survivable communications, which led directly to the internet. Rather, basic science pays for itself by creating an ecosystem of experienced and highly trained people, who constantly raise the nation's general level of knowledge and skill. Entrepreneurs and investors, not politicians, can then employ that knowledge to create new products and new industries.
It often seems as if the worst thing that can happen to an emerging technology is for a politician, or a political party, to get enthusiastic about it. Former President George W. Bush believed that cellulosic ethanol, a form of ethanol made from non-food crops or waste materials, such as switchgrass or wood chips, was the answer to high gas prices. His administration supported legislation requiring the use of cellulosic ethanol in gasoline, which has now put the government in the totally absurd position of demanding that oil companies sell a nonexistent product to their customers.
It is understandable that the GOP does not wish to talk about this fiasco -- but why are Democrats keeping quiet about it? In contrast, Republicans have not hesitated to invoke the bankrupt Solyndra solar power firm, as an example of the Obama administration's failed attempts to build a "green" energy policy.
Ever since the mid 1970s -- when, as a result of the Arab oil embargo that followed the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the rise of environmentalism, along with its demand for renewable energy -- every single US administration has promoted and supported photovoltaic solar power. Democrats tend to brag more about their support for solar technology, while Republicans have supported solar energy subsidies -- more quietly, but with almost as much money.
Thanks to both government support and radical improvements in semiconductor technology, photovoltaic panels have become a bit cheaper and a bit more efficient. Sadly, the improvements have been slow and hardly seem to justify the effort put into promoting them. The contemporary solar power industry, with its dependency on subsidies from local, state and federal governments is, largely, a better example of crony capitalism or, what economists call, "rent-seeking behavior," than the kind of high-tech, entrepreneurial free enterprise investments which both America's main political parties claim to support.
The key measure of the economic viability of photovoltaic cells is how efficiently they convert sunlight to electricity. Early model 1970s-era photovoltaic cells had conversion factors of approximately 3%: today's average is about 12% to 18%. A few, very expensive, advanced cells can convert more than 40% of sunlight into electricity. One of the best companies achieving these results is Boeing Spectrolabs, a division of the giant Boeing aerospace company. It originally specialized in making solar cells with which to power satellites, but now, in addition to its traditional space business, makes high-quality photovoltaic systems for terrestrial applications. Spectrolabs' cells have won several world records for efficiency, and the company shows no sign of slowing down.
Older photovoltaic technology employs what is termed, "single junction cells," which absorb light particles known as photons, and then uses them to excite electrons, which then produce direct current electricity. There has been steady improvement in several aspects of this technology, but improvements in efficiency have been slow. The biggest recent advances in single-junction photovoltaic cells have been in reductions in their cost and weight.
Spectrolabs claims that the multi-junction concentrator technology which it has mastered will, eventually, produce cells that are 50% efficient. Multi-junction technology takes advantage of the way in which various materials react differently to different parts of the visible light spectrum. To put it another way, some materials efficiently take blue light and convert it into electricity, and other materials do better with yellow or red light.
The industry average of about 16% efficiency is nowhere near enough to make photovoltaic solar cells a truly viable replacement for fossil fuels. Solar cells require a great deal more land than is available -- at least without, according to some environmentalists, doing permanent harm to various lizards, turtles and other fauna.
Given the limits of today's photovoltaic solar power, a good case could be made to give up on the whole effort and simply reduce the federal budget by the amount used to promote the technology. It would be better if some of the money could be directed away from subsidies to businesses, and towards the support of basic science, in an effort to ensure the development of vastly improved photovoltaic cells. To put it bluntly, the US government would have to give up on "crony capitalism," as exemplified by Solyndra, and go back to funding scientific research.
Spectrolabs claims that efficiencies of up to 70% are theoretically possible, but not practical. If this is, indeed, the maximum efficiency which photovoltaics can achieve, then it is in the American national interest to support the scientific research that can help US firms master the technology as quickly as possible. What is probably most needed is a dramatic improvement in our understanding of the way things work at the molecular, atomic and subatomic levels. There is also a need to increase spending on solar physics, and on research into the nature of the very stuff of which light is made of, the photon.
None of this would be easy but, thanks to rapid advances in the ability of information-technology to support scientific research, the payoff might come more quickly than anyone now imagines. Spending government cash on things such as loan guarantees, and direct or indirect subsidies to businesses, is a waste of money. Spending government money on basic science is the sort of spending that has helped make the US a science and technology superpower.
It seems that former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney understands the problem, at least rhetorically. In reply to a recent question on energy policy he wrote, "President Obama's misguided attempt to play the role of venture capitalist, picking winners and losers, and spending tens of billions of dollars on politically-prioritized investments, has been a disaster for the American taxpayer. Yet, at the same time, we must never forget that the United States has moved forward in astounding ways, thanks to national investments in basic research and advanced technology."
If Governor Romney is elected, it will be interesting to see just how far he will be willing to go to put this policy into effect.