Both alternative energy companies declared bankruptcy this year after receiving millions in federal job stimulus dollars. It’s just what the United States does not need right now, says nuclear scientist Michael T. Gamble, an alternative energy researcher and investment-banking analyst.
The public backlash to ill-spent tax dollars could hurt a vital emerging industry – one that is very much key to future U.S. jobs.
“Cheap energy would enable little Silicon Valley businesses to develop phenomenal things because they’re not hampered by the increased cost of doing business,” says Gamble, a former scientist at the Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico and author of Zeroscape (www.zeroscape-thebook.com), a high-tech thriller. “Work with certain technologies, like high-energy lasers, requires large amounts of energy. A little photonics company could be a future Apple.”
Apple Inc., he notes, had 46,600 full-time employees in September 2010, up a third from the previous year. That was job growth during the throes of economic recession.
Gamble says the public perception of the alternative energy industry as a worthy recipient of taxpayer dollars may be tainted by what were essentially business failures exacerbated by the falling cost of solar-grade silicon. Perhaps they were poor choices for Energy Department loan guarantees.
“Solyndra was never even close to manufacturing cost-effective, competitive solar panels,” he says. “Their cost was $3 to $6 per watt.”
However, there are companies, and even government research, worth investing in, Gamble says.
A robust photovoltaic company that’s close to achieving competitive pricing is Nanosolar of San Jose, Calif. Its thin-film, printable solar collection panels use copper, indium, gallium, selenium and nanoparticle inks as opposed to the widely used silicon panels, a lower-cost strategy. When combined with the savings from minimal installation labor, Nanosolar’s panels are on course to produce energy for 60 cents per watt and achieve production efficiencies comparable to silicon panels within the next few years.
Of the regional options for renewable energy – tidal on the coasts, geothermal in the West, and wind in myriad locations – the latter is ripe for harvest. In 2010, China replaced the United States as the world leader in wind energy production, adding 16.5 gigawatts – comparable to the maximum electricity generated by 16 large nuclear power plants. It now surpasses the United States by 2 gigawatts. The U.S. lag was due, in part, to the expiration of the Obama administration’s Recovery Act, a one-time tax incentive for deployment of renewable energy installations.
Free as they are, sun and wind may be overpowered by success of the most high-tech energy source sought: nuclear fusion. Different from the nuclear fission employed by nuclear reactors, fusion is environmentally friendly, much less risky for humans, and uses fuel derived from water. It produces lots of energy; helium is the byproduct. The Lawrence Livermore National Lab near San Francisco has built a laser fusion device called the National Ignition Facility (NIF), capable of delivering 500 terawatts to a BB-size target while liberating clean energy. “Now that NIF is operational,” Gamble says, “its budget must be directed principally toward its mission as the groundbreaking American device closest to realizing a fantastic renewable energy source.”