Beyond Solyndra: A Role for the Government in Energy R&D

The failure of Solyndra is having enormous implications – for the role of government in providing loans, for the appropriateness of particular tax incentives and for the value of government-backed business subsidies.  Therefore, it was no surprise to see the Wall Street Journal’s opinion on the complex set of government subsidies in the article, The Corporate Welfare State.  As many of us urge that governments extricate themselves from areas where they distort the marketplace and provide unfair competitive advantage to particular products, businesses and industries, it is worthwhile to ask again: what should be the role of government in the energy sector?

And there is a role for the government in the energy sector, I believe.  That role is one of a assuring that new energy resources are developed and that they are exploited for the benefit of U. S. citizens.  That role means that the government should support the development of new sources of energy and new technologies that make energy more widely available, cheaper and cleaner.  Essentially this is a role associated with research & development – R&D – a role that can be exercised in collaboration with contributing partnered, businesses and industries.

Just published last week in the Journal of the American Chemical Society was a representative and important research contribution from Sandra M. Feldt and her colleagues from Uppsula University’s Department of Physical and Analytical Chemistry.  Their work addressed the viability of using dye-sensitized solar cells (DSCs) in the place of the more typical technology of silicon-based photovoltaic cells in today’s solar panels.  In DSC technology, light is absorbed by a dye molecule which then emits an electron into the surrounding electrolyte. The advantage of DSC is evident from a manufacturing process that could use a relatively cheap, polymer printing process in the place of constructing photovoltaic cells.  The current technology’s inefficiencies and costs of materials inhibit the use of the process.

Among the potential solutions to the increased use of the DSC technology is the discovery of a mediator for the emitted electron that is capable of raising efficiency of the dye and lowering the costs from corrosion in the manufacturing process.  Sandra Feldt and her colleagues have contributed to our understanding of alternatives that raise the probability of viable, printable polymer solar cells – and their work was supported by the government, i.e., the government of Sweden and the Swedish Energy Agency.

Despite the focus here on solar energy research, I do not believe that the role of government in supporting R&D should be confined to renewable energy sources.  Elsewhere I have written about the long-term reliance that we will have on fossil fuels, the potential for new technology that decreases the negative impacts of fossil fuels on health and environment, and the importance of transition energy sources like natural gas from shale beds.  But there is a role for government in the solar industry as well, and it is in supporting solar-related R&D, despite the apparent debacle of the loan to Solyndra through the U. S. Department of Energy.

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