Saturday, January 15, 2005

Who's Counting?

Canadian scientists have invented a plastic composite that transforms infrared rays into electricity; National Geographic has a not entirely accurate take on it, with which I will now ceremoniously quibble:

The researchers combined specially designed nano particles called quantum dots with a polymer to make the plastic that can detect energy in the infrared.

With further advances, the new plastic "could allow up to 30 percent of the sun's radiant energy to be harnessed, compared to 6 percent in today's best plastic solar cells," said Peter Peumans, a Stanford University electrical engineering professor, who studied the work.
That "6 percent" is somewhat misleading, in that today's best solar cells already convert over 30 percent of radiant energy to electricity. Those aren't plastic cells, though (they're triple-junction gallium-indium-phosphide on gallium arsenide on germanium concentrator cells, if you really must know). If memory serves, the average commercial solar cell currently converts 12 to 15 percent.
At a current cost of 25 to 50 cents per kilowatt-hour, solar power is significantly more expensive than conventional electrical power for residences. Average U.S. residential power prices are less than ten cents per kilowatt-hour, according to experts.
And therein lies the problem with how we calculate costs in this society. Obviously, the price at which a commodity is offered is different from its cost of production. In some cases, price is lower than cost (subsidies are the obvious example). The prices for coal, natural gas, and nuclear power are artificially low, and don't take into account the external costs of these technologies, which include pollution, accidents, the opportunity costs of land use, health problems among workers, and perhaps even the occasional war. The figure of ten cents per kilowatt-hour is simply wishful thinking; to think otherwise is to be guilty of reification.

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