Researchers at AT&T Bell Labs in New Jersey invented a solar cell 60 years ago.
This was 6 years and a few months after Bell Labs invented the first working transistor.
The post world war two period till the late 1950s were the wonder years of physics in America. Even Pontiacs and Oldsmobiles were wonderful then. Bell Labs and New Jersey were the epicenter of amazing discoveries and practical inventions. Thermodynamics and quantum physics were the basis for the research. The BS of the past ten years where junk science, greenwashing, and the department of entropy taking over labs would have never been tolerated in that golden period of science based research.
Harry Truman was president when the transistor was invented. We just celebrated his 130 Birthday. Harry was from the Show Me State. Now the state of research conducted has become the Show Me The Money State. The US was simply an amazing place to be in 1954 when the first solar cell was invented. No person living then would have believed that the Communists in China would be making most of the solar cells sixty years later and the US would have Companies like Solyndra that would be shellacked by the grandchildren of the peoples’ liberation army. It is simply a disgrace that Dr. Chu headed the Department of Energy and took it onto the train to nowhere.
The fantastic thing about solar cells is they can be a clean competitive source for generating electricity on a large scale. The project I worked on in the Atacama Desert of Chile is one example. That project made economic and ecologic sense and is dispatching 100 megawatts of electrical energy into the grid day in and day out.
The next frontier in making solar energy fully dispatchable is to store energy on a grid scale. This can be done with natural gas fired systems that provide spinning reserves and ancillary services. There is also significant effort to store energy in batteries that back up the grid. I have a hunch that there will be breakthroughs in the battery systems that do allow certain PV and wind power projects to become more economic. I have blogged about the number of cycles lithium ion batteries may enjoy. There are other chemistries that also may do the job here. The best thing we can all do is let chemists, physicists, and engineers do the R&D and let the laws of thermodynamics either prove or disprove their inventions. Dr. Moniz who now heads the DOE would do well to simply let private industry fight it out on energy storage and let the best technology win without choosing (Chu-sing) sides. Dr. Chu was completely derelict in his duty to choose the wrong chemistry in PV and have the US get its head handed to it by China.
The US has the ability to use natural gas in conjunction with PV and Wind generation. Therefore let the batteries compete on a level and unbiased playing field with natural gas to see which way the intermittency of PV and Wind power generation can best be levelled out. If natural gas is the way to go we should use natural gas. If a certain best battery is the way to go we should use that battery. If pumped hydro or compressed air storage is the way to go we should use those technologies. What we should not do is pump billions of tax payers’ dollars into the hands of bundlers and political operatives to solve the problem.
Bravo Bell Labs for inventing the transistor and the solar cell. The Chileans in the Atacama are enjoying the benefits of electrons thanks to your science.