Despite the budgetary constraints that a sagging economy has imposed upon the state, Gov. Phil Bredesen is bent on making investments that would bring Tennessee to the forefront in meeting a pressing national need; namely, the development of clean energy technologies.
In his recent State-of-the-State address that otherwise stressed the need for fiscal austerity, Bredesen envisioned forming "a Solar Institute in Tennessee that is the basic leader in making solar power practical." While he stopped short of making a financial commitment, it just so happens that the state has about $15 million set aside in an obscure fund that, according to the governor, "can only be used for some energy production related things." And Bredesen also told journalists that, "two extended conversations with Thom Mason, director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory" give him encouragement that "Tennessee could carve out a place for itself in something that I think is going to be an increasingly important part of the economy in the years ahead."
An initial investment in solar would be small compared to the $70 million that the state committed two years ago, when times were flush, in a biofuels initiative aimed at making Tennessee a leader in that field. That initiative has funded the construction of a pilot refinery in Vonore that's due to come on line this year for making ethanol out of switchgrass, with ORNL conducting research aimed at making its cost competitive with other fuel.
Mason, for his part, believes a state investment in solar could "jump-start" ORNL's preparedness for participation "in an area that the new administration [in Washington] really wants to emphasize. So as we see budgets getting formulated there for increased investments, we could be very well positioned for these."
As Mason sees it, the state investment wouldn't take the form of bricks and mortar. Rather, "In my mind it's like the bioenergy effort where it's a virtual institute.... We're investing in the people to focus on this problem. Then, if over a couple of years we've made some successes, it may be time to move on to another problem and not set up something that's a permanent entity."
The goal is to get the cost of converting sunlight into electricity down to the point where it's competitive with energy generated from coal and other fossil fuels. An enormous amount of effort has gone into lowering the cost and increasing the conversion efficiency of solar panels on the part of hundreds of companies in the field. But right now, by most estimates, the cost is still three times higher than what's known as the electric grid, and solar accounts for less than 1 percent of power generation.
"People invest in solar because they really care about it and think it's the right thing to do," Mason says. "But if you just make a hard-nosed business decision, right now you don't do solar." He believes technological gains are being made with the materials presently employed. "But if you look at the price gap we have to close, it's not something you're going to do by just incrementally improving the technology. We've got to have some more transformational breakthrough which gets you back into materials science, which is where Oak Ridge is really strong."
Better materials are needed, and ORNL has both the scientific expertise and the research tools needed to develop them, he asserts. "A lot of the tools we would use to study those materials and understand their behavior are things like high-performance computing and the neutron source." These are, of course, ORNL's mainstays, and once they have helped yield cost-effective new materials, "that's when you can really see this thing take off," Mason exults. The payoff will be huge, he says, both environmentally and in terms of improved national security by reducing dependence on foreign oil.
For all this ballyhoo, it remains to be seen whether ORNL can indeed become the locus of the nation's solar energy research and development effort. Up to now, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the Denver area has been the leader. And it's not as if ORNL is only now turning to this field.
Last year, a start-up company, Ampulse, was launched with ORNL-licensed technology and $2 million in seed funding from the venture capital arm of Battelle, which manages the national lab in partnership with UT. Ampulse was initially based in Knoxville but has since relocated to the Denver area for proximity to NREL. "We discovered some complementary technology at NREL and also got some matching funding from the Department of Energy. So the bulk of the development work is taking place at NREL, and we needed to have our feet on the ground there," explains Kef Kasdin, a partner of the Battelle venture capital firm that's nurturing Ampulse.
Most solar panels in use today are made of silicon, but it is very pricey. So like many other new entrants to the field, Ampulse is looking to drive down cost by coating a less expensive metal substrate with a thin film of silicon.
When he gets technical, Mason also talks in terms of thin films and layering. "The challenge," he says," is that you've really got to control the synthesis of these materials and to understand how the growth of that thin film takes place which is something you can model on a computer...."
In other words, ORNL has preeminent capabilities for making solar power flourish. And Bredesen is to be commended for taking the initiative in backing them.