We have researchers here developing systems that should be able to convert more than 40% of the incoming sunlight to electricity (current panels are ~20% efficient). We are also working with research groups that can generate fuels and chemicals directly form sunlight, or from biomass, hopefully at an efficiency and cost that will replace conventional fossil fuel materials.

Interview with Neil Fromer, Executive Director, Caltech Resnick Sustainability Institute

Neil Fromer | Caltech’s Resnick Sustainability Institute


Why is solar finally now being addressed seriously?

Well, solar has been growing tremendously for the last several years, so it’s not like this is a sudden sea change. However, what we have seen as installations increase and financing has become “bankable” is that solar is now seen as a sound (not at all risky) investment. This means that organizations that install and then manage solar facilities can get the funds to back larger and larger projects, and then turn around and sell power to utilities and end users at a rate that is competitive with traditional energy sources. In sunny CA, this tipping point means that solar projects are competing with fossil fuel plants head to head in open solicitations.


What does this mean?

For one thing, it means that when utilities in CA want to procure new energy sources, they are increasingly finding that the best deal comes from solar power. On the residential and commercial end, it means that users are finding it cost effective to reduce their daytime consumption by installing solar panels.

We are approaching a time when continued development of solar power will require a significantly upgraded infrastructure, including dramatic increases in the cost-effectiveness of solar and grid-connected energy storage. This will also require an upgraded control system that can coordinate the millions of active users on the distribution grid that no longer simply use electricity, but now can also generate and store it as well, and can alter their usage patterns based on the needs of the system as a whole.


Why can’t all of these problems be addressed through incremental solutions?

Some of the problems we have faced have actually been addressed this way. For the development of the dominant silicon solar technologies, it has been incremental technological improvement that has led to cost reductions, coupled with more time on sun to convince people that these are reliable long term investments.

However, in order to continue to increase penetration of solar energy on the grid, we need to continue to improve efficiency of the technology to lower the cost. The incumbent technologies are nearing their maximum practical efficiency now, and breakthroughs that can convert significantly more of the suns energy into electricity will require long term research in fundamentally new technologies. High efficiency solar will be necessary both to scale to terawatts of generation, especially in more dense urban centers where there is not as much available land area for solar, and also to reduce the overall installed cost (higher efficiency means fewer panels for the same output, means less material and less labor, multiplying the savings).

Similarly, the management of the grid needs to undergo dramatic shift in order to accommodate the large penetrations of intermittent renewables. These new systems require a fundamental change in approach to solving the complex control and infrastructure issues that will face a distribution grid with potentially millions of active participants that can generate, store and adjust usage as needed.


How important is government support via subsidies to the future of the solar industry?

Not as important as it has been in the past. As mentioned above, we are starting to see more and more of these installations competing head to head with conventional generation. As the industry looks ahead to the decreasing of federal subsidies, there is not the expectation that this will decrease the adoption. State subsidies in CA have already essentially disappeared without reducing demand.

It is important for government agencies to set aggressive targets for renewable energy generation and use, to continue to spur innovation in the area. It is especially important to continue to seed the transformational new ideas that can continue to lower the cost of solar energy even without any subsidies, and that will develop the smart control system needed for the grid of the future.


What is the role of Caltech’s Resnick Sustainability Institute in addressing these issues?

The Resnick Institute is focused on supporting cutting edge new research ideas that can have, in the long term, a transformational impact in energy or sustainability. By asking a different set of questions, we are developing new technologies that can be truly game-changing. When people are asked to improve the efficiency of solar technology, for instance, the expectation is that by starting with the current state of the art and finding the places where you can improve the performance, you will be able to increase efficiency. However, this will almost by definition be a small, incremental improvement. If instead you ask the question: what are the fundamental limits to the efficiency of a solar generating system, and what is stopping us from making the most efficient system possible, you will approach the problem in a different way, and perhaps develop a truly unique and transformational new technology advance.

This is the approach we take to support the researchers at Caltech in developing new ideas across many disciplines that can impact the worlds generation and use of energy and other natural resources.


What are the most promising technologies?

Following this approach, I would say that any solar technology that can drastically increase efficiency is key. We have researchers here developing systems that should be able to convert more than 40% of the incoming sunlight to electricity (current panels are ~20% efficient). We are also working with research groups that can generate fuels and chemicals directly form sunlight, or from biomass, hopefully at an efficiency and cost that will replace conventional fossil fuel materials. Looking for ways to understand the flow of air through wind farms, and designing the farms accordingly, can have 10x improvement on the amount of wind power that can be generated in a given area. 

These are a few of the energy generation ideas we are supporting.


Are there other energy sources out there that are nearing economic and technical support to become viable players?

In the long term, solar and wind can provide enough energy to power the world many times over. If you can couple increased efficiency in these technologies with the development of cheap/efficient storage, either of electricity on the grid or in renewably generated fuels, and add in a smart infrastructure that utilizes these components as effectively as possible, you have the system of the future.


Look into your crystal ball and describe how the home and business of the future will be constructed and powered?

Wow. There’s a lot of ways to address this question. I think that, in the not too distant future, we will see homes or neighborhoods that are able to generate large amounts of solar power and have local electricity storage, and devices that can convert either sunlight or electricity into fuel and fuel back into electricity. These systems will be “smart,” able to sense the overall state of the larger grid and adjust production/use accordingly to provide the most reliable and cleanest system possible. The electricity system will integrate seamlessly with a smart water and smart transportation system that will allow us to live largely carbon free in terms of our personal and commercial energy use.



About Dr. Neil Fromer, Executive Director, the Caltech Resnick Sustainability Institute
Neil received his PhD in semiconductor physics from UC Berkeley, and his BS in Engineering/Physics from Brown University. Neil’s scientific background is in the interactions of light and matter, and he has over a decade of experience working on solar energy technologies. However, lately he has also been very interested by energy storage, clean fuel generation and use, smarter energy and water distribution systems, and energy efficiency.

Prior to his arrival at the Resnick Institute, Neil was the director of advanced projects and the director of reliability and testing for Soliant Energy, a concentrating photovoltaic company. Previously, Neil worked to develop new low-cost solar cells, on the commercialization of energy efficient LED light bulbs and fixtures, and as a consultant to many cleantech startups.


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