Newsletter Archive

E-News Issue #40

2 February 2001

Media Hype vs. Reality

By Peter Pedals

The promise in the media of "The Perfect Battery" or "Breakthrough to bring cheaper solar power" or typical headings like the ones that I have been seeing for as long as I can remember.

Such headings and stories may help to sell newspapers but often create false expectations in all the readers who are interested in the reported technology for their own benefit. It can be difficult to pinpoint the origin of any such story as these stories will be reprinted and rebroadcast by many media other than the source media as other media will pick up on the story as they think it to be of interest to their particular readers or listeners. It is very easy to fall into this trap; I know because I have been involved in different print media and am presently involved in Nimbin Community Radio Station, NIM FM.

There are two developments that I have been closely watching for many years and they are the Vanadium Redoxide Battery and the Pacific Solar thin film photovoltaic development.

The Vanadium Redoxide Battery promises a breakthrough in battery technology where the amount of power
storage is only dependent upon how big the storage tanks are that store the electrolyte. This battery is ideal for the electric vehicle as instead of waiting for however long it takes to recharge the battery, all it takes to recharge the Vanadium Redoxide battery in the electric vehicle is to pump out the discharged electrolyte and to pump in the recharged electrolyte.

The discharged electrolyte can then take as long as it need to recharge before being pumped into another vehicle whilst you continue driving. Well this is what was promised a decade ago and I for one am still waiting for the day that the technology becomes commonplace.

The spin-doctors have promised major price breakthroughs in solar technology countless times.

Such stories do both the industry and the consumers a disservice by creating unrealistic expectations. I will tell you why the expectation of a major price reduction in photovoltaic technology (solar panels) is unrealistic.

Demand in solar technology has always been greater than supply even though the renewable energy industry is one of the fastest growing industries and so that situation will remain into the foreseeable future. Even a small reduction in price has the effect of a significantly larger increase in demand.

If you have ever studied economics or know about the most basic economic law of supply and demand you
would know that as long as demand outstrips supply that prices will not make any drastic downward movements.

After examining some of these stories fairly thoroughly I can also say that in order to get the maximum impact in the story, the truth suffers some amount of distortion. For instance if you only quote the estimated price of producing solar cells and leave out the cost of encapsulating them as well as all the other costs out there in the real world such as marketing, mark-ups all the way through to retail as all the middle-men get their slice of the pie and then compare it to the standard retail price of a known brand you can very easily inflate the figure and still claim that it is based on given information.

Furthermore, if any photovoltaic manufacturer can manufacture more cheaply, that manufacturer will most likely recoup R&D costs more rapidly than would otherwise be possible rather than undercut the existing market by too great an amount. It is not until supply starts catching up with demand that the real price war comes into effect as all manufacturers start vying for the same clientele.

Meanwhile all those who took the story seriously however many years ago are still denying themselves the luxury of extra solar power and continue waiting for the promise to come to fruition.

Another story to question is the one of a great efficiency break through.

In terms of solar power, the efficiency of solar panels is nowhere near as important as the dollars per watt and the reliability of the product. If you are wishing to solar power your home, the first question that arises is usually affordability. How much of the roof is taken up with solar panels is usually of lesser concern.

It is unlikely that photovoltaic efficiency can be improved without a corresponding increase in price. Silicon is the most common mineral on the Earth's surface and so it is expected that solar technology based on silicon should be cheaper than a technology based on rarer minerals.

The theoretical maximum efficiency of silicon based solar technology is about 30% and present technology is at about 15% efficiency. One of the more expensive aspects of silicon cell technology is the high level of refinement required to produce reasonable levels of efficiency where it may be easier to reduce the cost by producing less efficient solar modules using a lower level of refinement than it is to continue improving efficiency.

The best breakthrough for both the renewable energy industry and the consumer of these products is the government rebates which in Queensland are the best in the country and the best that I've ever seen.

These rebates have the effect of increasing sales and manufacture in this country thereby reducing costs just by way of sheer volume.

I have been eagerly awaiting Professor Martin Green's promising solar developments, but despite all the media hype I don't expect the release of his new low grade silicon thin film modules to have any dramatic effect on the cost of solar modules as the new Pacific Solar manufacturing plant would scarcely create a ripple on the world's solar manufacturing capacity.

I think one learns to read a lot of media hype with a certain degree of pessimism. The more sensationalism we
get fed as we grow older the less gullible we become. Even without necessarily understanding any technical jargonese it isn't too difficult to separate the hype from the fair dinkum valued information.

Promising "A Perfect Battery" I find rather similar to promising that a ship is unsinkable. To promise
perfection is really asking for trouble and I for one would be very sceptical of any such promise.

Let's have more honesty in both reporting and advertising. That would benefit us all.

Cheers from Dave and all the RPC crew.

Dave Lambert (Director)

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We install solar systems in Northern NSW and Southern QLD.

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