Nanotech, Cleantech, Expensive Tech

Anyone considering jumping onto the clean-tech bandwagon would do well to take a look at just how woefully inefficient current renewable energy sources are. The table below is adapted from information published in the Sunday Times this weekend. 

 Assuming that in the next thirty years you will move house, or that some part of the installation may require fixing,  then using current technology you will not see any economic benefit ever. It might make you feel good, until you calculate that all that extra carbon produced by the manufacture of the system, its transport and the various bits of plumbing required have resulted in a net increase in your carbon emissions and a hole in your wallet. 

Ah-ha, you may say, but can’t nanotechnology bring down the cost of solar panels and improve their efficiency and completely change the economics? Well the answer is yes, and no. 

While there have been a number of breakthroughs in roll to roll processing of flexible photovoltaics, actually making them commercially viable seems to be a herculean task. Companies such as Konarka have been trying to produce flexible “power plastic” since life first emerged from the oceans, and given the current rate of progress we’ll have the boffins at CERN harnessing dark matter and nano black holes long before we see anything with a lifetime measured in tens of years. 

The other idea often touted is to bring down the cost of the silicon or other material used for photovoltaics. Well that may have some effect, but when you consider that all the cheap Polish plumbers have gone back to Poland, and that fuel costs have risen by 60% over the last year, then the saving on the silicon has been more than outweighed by the hugely increased costs of having a bloke pop around with a ladder to install the system.

As an illustration, the cost of buying a 1kW wind turbine is around £700, which means the production cost must be in the region of £300. Assuming cost of materials to be around half that total, a 50% reduction in materials cost would result in a grand saving of £75 from a total of £3,000 – some 2.5%. 

So, the bottom line is the bottom line, and without generous subsidies current renewable technologies work out much more expensive than simply burning fossil fuels.  The last study I commissioned indicated that there was plenty of opportunities in nanotechnology applications for sustainability, but very few in power generation.  


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