Solar’s Four Decade Journey Underscores the Need for Patience and Support for Transformational Sustainability Science

PASADENA, CA - April 7, 2015 - Today's worldwide active adoption of solar power means that it is finally beginning to have substantial impact on environmental sustainability, according to Dr. Harry Atwater, Caltech's Howard Hughes Professor of Applied Physics and Materials Science. But, according to Atwater, it's also time to learn important lessons from the solar's long journey to adoption. He believes that it's critical that potentially transformational ideas in energy and sustainability must be nurtured, funded, and supported for the long haul - even if they are difficult.

"When I first worked on solar energy in the 1970's, it was very clear to me that harnessing the energy of the sun was inevitable: it's free and sustainable," said Dr. Atwater, who is also director of the Resnick Sustainability Institute at Caltech and director of the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis. "But solar power's 40 years of hard science and economic and sociological challenges have taught me that these kinds of big ideas must receive long term support in order to reach their potential. And, by the way, in solar, as in many other areas of sustainability science, we are just barely past the starting line."

According to Atwater, solar installations now total more than 100 gigawatts- or the peak power generation equivalent of 50-100 coal power stations per year. This can have substantial impact, such as solar's compensation for the loss of hydroelectric power in California due to the drought and many other examples.

But there are still a number of hurdles to overcome for solar power to become ubiquitous. In addition to simplifying the administrative burden of installing solar in the U.S., Atwater believes that three things must happen in the technology realm: the level of solar efficiency must become even greater than it is today (commercial solar is in the "teens" of efficiency. It could rise to 30% efficiency within a few years.); storage and on-demand dispatchability must be developed for power from solar energy; and the complexities of integrating distributed power from individual sources with the power generated by utility companies must be conquered.

"But these are all within our view today," concluded Atwater. "The decades of effort and patience are paying off. The same can happen for other transformational breakthroughs."

About The Resnick Sustainability Institute
The Resnick Institute is Caltech's studio focused on the breakthroughs that will change the balance of the world's sustainability. It marries bold creativity and deep scientific knowledge by encouraging original thinking and orthogonal ideas. The Resnick Institute works with some of the world's top and emerging scientists - at the California Institute of Technology and beyond. Current projects at the Resnick Institute include research into energy generation, such as advanced photovoltaics, photoelectrochemical solar fuels, cellulosic biofuels, and wind energy system design; energy conversion work on batteries and fuel cells; and energy efficiency and management such as fuel efficient vehicles, green chemical synthesis, thermoelectric materials, and advanced research on electrical grid control and distribution.

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