All-Out Global Solar R&D Effort: Could It Happen?

Is solar the one – and is research and development the way to make it happen?

Wind power (and subsidies for its installation) has gotten at least as much attention from most governments, but two prominent thinkers on energy and the economy are making news with their call, in a Financial Times piece, for an international Manhattan- or Apollo-style R&D project “to enable bulk electricity to be produced more cheaply by solar energy than by any fossil fuel.”

Ikea distribution center in Perryville, Md. (image via Ikea)

Ikea distribution center in Perryville, Md. (image via Ikea)

The call to focus on solar energy is particularly striking given that one of the authors, the chemist and former UK chief science advisor David King, is a strong proponent of nuclear power. (Richard Layard, his co-author, is an economist who has done groundbreaking work on the link between non-income variables, including mental health, and happiness.)

The King-Layard vision, targeted for success by 2025, in some ways mirrors what the Obama administration is pursuing with SunShot, the initiative named after JFK’s “moon shot” that gave rise to the Apollo program. SunShot is pumping resources into a wide range of research efforts aimed at chiseling away at the cost of solar, from boosting panel efficiency to driving down “soft cost” to nurturing startups that are pursuing technological breakthroughs in things like energy storage.

But that’s just $300 million a year or so that the U.S. is putting into SunShot. In their FT piece proposing the international solar R&D push, King and Layard wrote that “to match the spending on the Apollo project would require only 0.05 per cent of each year’s gross domestic product for 10 years from each G20 country.” Sounds modest, but consider that in 2012, U.S. GDP was $15.7 trillion. That would make the annual U.S. solar R&D contribution, under the King-Layard plan, $7.8 billion.

Now, any sane person would see that as a pittance for a country that somehow managed to spend $757.4 billion on an utterly unnecessary war in Iraq from 2003 through 2011. But the reality is that the Republican-led House of Representatives wants to slash the U.S. clean-energy research budget by more than half, to $731.6 million, not boost it.

Naively, you might say, King and Layard think it still might be possible for the U.S. – which they consider vital to this effort, along with China – to lead the solar initiative.

“There are of course strong vested interests in the oil and gas industry, especially in the U.S.,” they write. “They greatly limit the president’s ability to tax carbon or subsidize non-carbon energy. But science is surely a different matter; attacking the problem from this side gives him more freedom of maneuver.”

If only it were so.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.