2007 Technology To Watch: Solar Thermal
Nice to be back after the holidays.
Before I get to the 2007 Technology to Watch, let's take a minute to review last year's prediction. On January 1, 2006, I predicted that 2006 would be the Year of Thin Film Solar. Well, let me be clear. Despite some nice breakthroughs and interesting developments, I would not call 2006 the Year of Thin Film Solar. Maybe I was a few years too early. The company I mentioned in last year's post, Heliovolt of Austin, won a Time Magazine award for the top 10 innovations of the year. Honda (ADR: HMC), Dupont (NYSE: DD), and General Electric (NYSE: GE) all entered the field. Despite this good news, actual demonstrable products are in short supply and installed capacity is even more scarce. Keep an eye on this one, though.
Solar Thermal is my pick for the 2007 Sustainable Technology to Watch. This is not a new innovation. It has been around for years, but this year, I predict that government policy, along with some nice technological breakthroughs will put this technology on the same level as more mainstream methods of energy generation, especially if oil and gas prices resume an upward swing.
By attaching the word "solar" to the technology, you are probably thinking about giant solar panels nailed onto your local treehugger's roof. Solar Thermal is not that technology. This technology involves calibrating mirrors to concentrate the sun's rays in a spot where water (or some other liquid) is heated. Heated water can then be used to generate steam. Steam is the driver of most turbines at most power plants, except that the heat is usually created from burning coal or natural gas. With solar thermal, there is no carbon byproduct.
For years, solar thermal has found a niche in water heaters and heated swimming pools. The technology is getting to where it can function on a utility scale now. Manufacturing a set of mirrors with the size and integrity to do the job is a surprisingly difficult task, but manufacturing methods are getting better and the number of companies involved keeps increasing.
Regulatory actions will make this alternative attractive to many utilities. Renewable Portfolio Standards are gaining traction nationwide, instigated by wholesale price spikes brought on by the oil shortages. Put simply, these are mandates from state legislatures that a specific percentage of overall electricity generated needs to come from renewable resources. The other renewable alternatives are facing obstacles. For utility scale solar (panel) generation, silicon is still facing supply constraints. As for wind, the size and scale of the new turbines is leading to some NIMBY-ism. The status of some very important wind generation tax credits also remains - ahem - up in the air.
Finally, 2006 saw an awakening of the potential of clean energy among institutional investors. Bill Gross, founder of technology incubator Idealab, founded a company call Energy Innovations, which makes rooftop solar collectors for commercial buildings. New Energy Finance predicts that 2006 venture and private equity investment in clean technologies to be up 167 percent over 2005 when all is said and counted. What is most significant is that this investment continued even after oil prices dipped back toward historical levels. This shows that the clean tech bandwagon has some serious legs.