Why we need a black swan event in solar

Researchers at MIT said today that they have a funnel like structure reproduced in a semiconductor material, molybdenum disulfide, that could make use of a broader range of sunlight than is used by the material silicon, which is what is mainly used in solar panels right now.

I see a lot of academic research on new materials hoping to improve the efficiency of solar panels. The other consistent material that researchers are working on is carbon nanotubes, which have pretty bad absorption patterns, but which are extremely cheap when compared to silicon or copper-indium-gallium-selenide (CIGS), the two main raw materials that today’s solar panels rely on for the conversion of sunlight to electricity.

The unfortunate reality is that solar panels have efficiencies between 10 and 20 percent, in terms of their ability to convert sunlight to usable power. The good news is that efficiencies are inching upward, usually a half to one percent each year at big manufacturers like First Solar.

And as all this research continues to push for a breakthrough, I’m reminded of Nassim Taleb’s book The Black Swan, which addresses risk and problem of events that are unforeseen and hard to predict, particularly in science, finance, history, and technology. For the fossil fuels industry, a solar panel on the market that got north of 50 percent efficiency at today’s manufacturing costs would, I believe, be such an event, driving down solar power prices and shaking up the energy economy.

On the problematic side, developing such a panel involves solving very difficult problems related to basic physics and chemistry. But, then again, black swan events are typically unimaginable in the present yet rationalized in hindsight.