Recap: Charlie Gay’s Reddit ‘Ask Me Anything’ Top 10 Questions

At Applied Materials we love trying new things, so to celebrate the Summer Solstice, I spent the day yesterday, answering questions about solar energy and photovoltaics on Reddit, one of the world’s biggest and most vibrant online communities.

During the day-long, live “Ask Me Anything” question and answer session, I received nearly 1,000 comments and questions, ranging from topics like how to get a job in renewable energy to nuclear versus solar! I had a great time discussing my passion and life’s work, and answered as many questions as I could throughout the day.

If you have a moment, spend some time reading through the questions the community asked and the responses provided, but to save you some time, listed in this post are the ten best questions, as voted by the Reddit community.

Note: some questions have been trimmed for length.

1. What do you think about nuclear energy? (asked by Shinhan)

Dr. Solar: The best nuclear power plant is our sun. It's 93 million miles away from earth. This one big nuclear power plants runs by itself and can do more than all the nuclear power plants that could be built on earth - and do it now.

The nuclear industry predates the scaling of photovoltaics and relies heavily on subsidies .... To get something going, it takes money and time. When governments want more energy options and cleaner energy, they allow for subsidies that decline over time and are scheduled to disappear once the industry reaches its scale.

 2. How much energy does it take to build a solar panel and how long does it take for that panel to earn back that energy? (asked by theillrequited)

Dr. Solar: It takes about 1 to 2 years for the solar panel to generate as much energy as was consumed in all of the background necessary to make the panel. 2.5kwH of energy is needed for each watt of solar panel.

3. How long do you think it will take for solar power to be the most used form of producing electricity, since people are practically shunning nuclear power, the government is cutting funding for ethanol, & we all know that coal and oil aren't going to last forever. (asked byImpundulu)

Dr. Solar: What we are likely to see is a large diversity of energy sources, with solar being one of a number of ways of generating clean electricity. Other ways include wind, geothermal, biomass, wave power and perhaps equally important, energy efficiency so that we use the electricity we have far more effectively. Ideally, solar would represent 25-30% of the energy supply in addition to a balance of other sources of energy.

Regarding how long this will take, it’s a matter of access to financing and government policy. Energy supply and infrastructure are almost always connected to the unique role of government, and with the government providing infrastructure it’s not unreasonable to expect that with focused effort that we could see solar exceed 20% of the supply of electricity in the next 25-50 years, given the right leadership and the proactive commitment industry stakeholders and the public to drive the adoption.

 4. What breakthrough is it going to take in order to make solar power financially feasible for mass production? Same question, but for power storage for use during evenings, storms, etc. (asked by All_Your_Base)

Dr. Solar: The industry doesn’t need a breakthrough - it needs to continue to scale the existing technology. Solar is already cost effective in a number of locations and applications and as those uses of solar expand, the scale of the industry grows. And as we can tell from the history of solar over the last 35 years, the cost will come down, approx. 18% for every cumulative doubling of installation and that trend will continue to happen.

For storage, the expanded use of electric vehicles is helping to drive down cost of larger battery systems. Also, the innovations happening in tablet and laptop technology to expand life of batteries and energy density are complementary to the increase innovation in storage.

5. I'm an undergrad at MIT, I've been researching thin-film photovoltaics since high school, and I'm currently working on my second publication. I plan to go into PV research as a career. What classes / subjects would you recommend I take to best help me along this track? I'm double majoring in EE and physics. Thanks! (asked by Walmart_Internet)

Dr. Solar: I would certainly include classes in materials science, perhaps chemistry as well, because the new materials that are being developed for solar cell and package to encapsulate the cells require advanced materials, including lower cost longer lasting polymers. It is always useful to combine the academic efforts with exposure to what’s happening in industry. In the US, Dow Corning, Dupont, SunPower, Solar World, Suniva all represent business with deep commitment to the scaling of PV.

If you’re interested in hearing more about opportunities at Applied to continue your research and profession, leave a message on a blog post of mine and we’ll have someone provide you with more information

6. I believe, according to the news here, that Portugal is in the front line of research and investments in this field, so, as someone from "the outside", how do you see Portugal in terms of solar business? Do you think we have "know-how" to export or it is just propaganda from the government? (asked by Nomearod_PT)

Dr. Solar: While Portugal is a good location for solar and there are several highly capable academic institutions working in PV, Europe overall represents the most concentrated collection of talent in R&D, and China represents the largest investments in photovoltaics. The role that Portugal could play, like so many parts of the world, is to both manufacture solar for its own job creation and self-reliance in clean energy. Also, having built that capability would put the country in a good position to be an exporter, especially to Latin American Portuguese-speaking countries, like Brazil. Brazil has some of the leading practical opportunities for deployment for clean energy, ranging from solar and biomass.

7. Will solar power ever overtake fossil fuels? What is currently stopping it from doing so? (asked by Hylogibbon)

Dr. Solar: Basically, we’re slowly depleting all of our fossil fuel resources, so it’s a matter of time. The role of solar is probably capped at about 1/3 of the total mix of electricity supply, and electricity represents perhaps 40% of our total energy needs. We use energy for transport and production of other raw materials ranging from plastics to drugs that are also based on fossil energy. So we want to further fine tune the way that we use our limited resources.

8. How do you feel about the future of thin-film technologies such as polymer, organic, and QD photovoltaics? (I research these, I'm just curious as to how they're viewed by the "silicon people") (asked by Walmart_Internet)

Dr. Solar: Materials like quantum dots, organic and polymer absorbing layers for solar generation are on the horizon. They largely require development of tech for long life outdoor use or creation of large scale hardware for large scale coating of very highly controlled composition and thickness. What’s exciting here is that the opportunities are really unbounded and as the industry grows we’re finding everyday acceleration in new ideas, new materials and new processes.

It’s estimated that today there are almost 70K people globally carrying out R&D and with investment of US$3B the industry has reached a level of significance and credibility that’s reflected in the scale in these investments.

9. Would you please talk about potential for US and Chinese solar companies to work together? Where do you see opportunities for mutual benefit, profit? Or do you? I'd appreciate any comments on the future of China's domestic solar market, China companies expanding their world clean tech presence and whether you see China's growing presence in the international renewable energy market as a threat, opportunity or something else. Thanks! (asked by ChrisrBrown)

Dr. Solar: There are tremendous opportunities for US and China to work together. They range from highest level attention to the environment since the US and China together account for about half of green house gas emissions, and we share the concern for addressing the solutions to climate change. The commitment Applied Materials has made to China is easily seen in the $200M solar technology center in Xi’an dedicated in Oct 2009, which is the largest privately funded solar R&D center. The manufacturing of solar panels in China now represents the largest geographically concentrated source of low cost PV panels. The market for solar in China has been slow to mature compared to the rest of the world. Last year China represented 500MW of panels in a world that added about 18,000MW. The interesting opportunity is that China has about 8 major utilities and the US has over 3,000 utilities. Because of the relatively direct set of opportunities to working with utilities in China, we suspect it would be easier for China to expand its use of solar because of the permitting and other infrastructure hurdles will be more easily overcome.

The utilities in China lead the world in advance grid network design, with the broad deploy for monitoring real time power flows along the grid. This enables the smart grid tech to be quickly incorporated into the overall electricity picture and there’s much that we can learn in the US from this transparency of information about this energy generation and consumption.

10. When are we going to start seeing bulk production processes for GaAs TF cells? Or would something else be a better long-term strategy (e.g. alternative Si processes due to availability issues)? If so, what's the strategy and timetable? What role do you see improved and alternative distribution networks playing in an ongoing energy strategy? (asked by tgrisfal)

Dr. Solar: There are several startups working on GaAs. Among these is Alta Devices and it’s straightforward to look up their approach to use of GaAs. Silicon remains a great long term strategy because of low cost raw material. The complementary equipment and infrastructure from the integrated circuit world and large-scale manufacturing is similar to how the auto industry applies to packaging. The nature of industry competition helps accelerate cost reduction, with each company having their own unique timetable and roadmap. While solar is a naturally distributable energy source, it’s most likely the evolutionary adoption of solar will be incorporated into existing grid networks where wire systems are already in place and most likely found in the form on micro girds and homes systems without the wired network.

While some of the bold visionary concepts for solar include large deployment of PV in space so the array can always be facing the sun, most likely we’ll see the day to day small steps use of solar expanded for the long term.

Bonus Question!  

What's one mind blowing fact or thing the general population doesn't know about solar that they should or is only obvious to people really involved in the industry? (asked by Cheetor)

Dr. Solar: When nuclear power plants are deployed they’re usually designed with a 3 mile perimeter around the plant. If that same area were covered with solar cells it would produce the same amount of power as that nuclear power plant.

If you’re interested in learning more, reach out to me on Reddit (username: drsolar) or via this blog.

Finally, if you enjoyed this Reddit activity, you might also appreciate learning about the results of our third annual solar energy survey and infographic with key facts from around the world to demonstrate solar energy’s potential.

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