Inside USD

Future of Solar Energy Could Be Brighter, Expert Says

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

gray.jpgWith gas prices skyrocketing, many people are hoping solar and other alternative energy sources can provide relief.

But a revolution in solar energy is at least a decade away, says California Institute of Technology Professor Harry Gray, a world-renown chemist who spoke May 9 at USD. “We’ve got to find a way to accelerate it,” says Gray, who is one of the principal investigators for the National Science Foundation Chemical Bonding Center that brings together leading scientists to research how best to harness solar energy.

While solar panels and sensitized paints that help convert sunlight to energy will make incremental gains, solar energy will remain too expensive to be competive with other forms of energy in the near future, he told a crowd of more than 200 professors, students and members of the public.

Significant progress will  come when scientists find a way to use sunlight to split sea water into hydrogen and oxygen and use the hydrogen as clean fuel. Once scientists are able to do that, the price of solar energy will come down to about 10 cents per kilowatt hour, making it competive with oil, coal and other conventional energy sources, he says. Another hurdle is developing solar fuel cells with abundant natural materials that are both inexpensive and non-toxic, he adds.

Gray, who has received numerous awards, including the National Medal of Science and the Wolf Prize, says demonstration projects, including solar cities, can build momentum and consenus for solar power. There is plenty of money for research but much more funding is necessary for demonstrations, he says.

While present and past presidential administrations have been slow to promote the need for solar energy, private industry has been more receptive, he says.

British Petroleum has funded some of the center’s work and other energy companies have also been supportive. “They realize (solar energy) is a $10 trillion business,” he says. “The future is in renewables and they know it.”

USD’s ChemClub, Associated Students, Energy Policy Initiatives Center, Provost’s Office and Sustainability Committee sponsored Gray’s talk. 

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