Day: June 13, 2007

Hitler's fuel to get giant subsidy. What about solar?

Apparently, my political prognostication skills are good. Coal state shills senators want to give coal to liquid fuel a $10 billion dollar subsidy loan.

Democrats Propose Loan Plan for Coal Plants – New York Times

As the Senate began debate today on a sprawling bill to reduce oil consumption, top Democrats were circulating a proposal to provide $10 billion in loans for plants that make diesel fuel from coal.

The proposal highlights the horse-trading involving powerful industry groups as Democratic leaders push for legislation that would require higher mileage in cars and a huge increase in the production of renewable fuels made from plants like switchgrass.

Yes, one of the lesser known provisions of these bills would expand renewable energy subsidies to coal.

As mentioned before, U.S lawmakers are losing their collective mind in exchange for lots of money. This is corruption too, you know, at a level that is unfathomable to your average two-bit third world dictator!

Meanwhile, how much money is spent on solar related research? You know, that big ball of wholesome renewable energy. This post on the reality based community blog explains why silicon production for photovoltaic cells is stuck.

The problem for the PV customers for silicon is that they are a fast grower sandwiched between two mature sectors growing roughly in line with the economy. Bulk silicon is used in old-economy alloys and sealants; and while demand for semiconductors grows rapidly in value, their extra capability is crammed onto roughly the same physical volume of raw material. Unfortunately there is no appropriate process for making PV-grade feedstock. Metallurgical-grade silicon, smelted by simple Victorian technology, largely in China, is cheap but too impure to work in solar cells. So you have to use semiconductor grade, which is absurdly over-specified for the purpose and priced to match.

For a long time the PV companies could go to refiners’ back doors like hobos and buy at a discount the seconds, the ingots rated substandard for the real semiconductor customers, but now the demand has shot up so PV has to pay full whack. This is by far the biggest constraint on the future of PV. Making the panels is straightforward : the industry cry – just Google it – is “silicon feedstock”.

People are of course working on finding a specific route to medium-grade silicon at $20 or so a kilo. Whoever gets there first will make a fortune and save the planet like Superman, so it’s an attractive opportunity. The problem was entirely predictable given the relative growth rates. So why didn’t it attract much effort until recently?

I think there has been an institutional market failure. The challenge is out of the technological reach of the bulk silicon people; and the semiconductor refiners have I think been fixated on keeping Intel and company happy, customers who must be insensitive to price and fanatically demanding on quality. A $100 processor might be built on a gram or less of silicon wafer, or 5 cents’ worth – hardly worth worrying about compared to cutting rejection rates for the circuits.

You would think that this geopolitically strategic problem would attract oodles of public research – a money cake like Alice’s with EAT ME “beautifully marked in currants”. Not so.

The EU put €42m into PV research in the €17.5 bn 6th Framework Programme (2002-2006), with one €2.6m programme on silicon feedstock (search for FOXY): the 7th Framework programme hasn’t been approved quite yet, but funding for renewable energy will go up.

The USA, heart of the world semiconductor industry, spends even less. The current DoE programme for PV technology offers $12.5 million over 2-3 years . Searching the DoE site with the keywords “silicon feedstock”, I found precisely one grant awarded – for a princely $99,928.

This is the order of money the US government hands out as charity to cranks. The Pentagon used to support serious gravitational physics with the blue-sky hope of finding antigravity, and apparently funded some antigravity devices – well into the crackpot zone. NASA spent $1.6M between 1996 and 2002 on a similarly starry-eyed “Breakthrough Propulsion Physics” programme, in hopes of a real warp drive. (more)

It’s market failure, and government policy’s job to predict and correct market failures by judicious injections of money and regulation. A fraction of this Hitler subsidy focused towards reducing the cost of high grade silicon production would, as the author of the above post put it, “save the world like Superman”

Meanwhile, Barack (no longer senator of coal) Obama no longer supports Coal-to-Liquid technology. That removes the one black mark (can I say that?) against his advocacy positions. Here’s hoping it is a real back tracking, and not just a reaction to pressure that will be reversed once eyes are turned.