Imperial College London – Think solar not nuclear for the energy of the future, say scientists

Imperial College London – Think solar not nuclear for the energy of the future, say scientists

Wednesday 1 March 2006

Solar rather than nuclear energy should be the UK
government’s priority in planning future energy production,
according to scientists writing today in the journal Nature

Challenging advocates of the nuclear option, researchers from
Imperial College London argue in their Commentary article that
photovoltaics, the direct conversion of sunlight to electricity,
could match and exceed the nuclear industry’s current output before
any new reactor could begin operating.

The UK currently generates 12 gigawatts of electricity from
nuclear power stations, around one sixth of the country’s total
electricity output. This is the same amount of electricity that it
is predicted Germany will generate through photovoltaics by 2012 if
it continues to expand its solar energy programme at its present

Solar panel installation programmes in Japan and Germany should be replicated in Britain, say researchers

The researchers write that the UK, which has a similar sunshine
profile to Germany, could produce 12 gigawatts of solar electricity
by 2023 if production is expanded by 40% per year, less than the
world increase of 57% in 2004.

However, in contrast to other developed countries, the UK has
recently halted its programme of solar panel installation on 3,500
rooftops halfway through. This compares to the completed
installation of 70,000 installations in Japan and 100,000 in
Germany. Lead author Professor Keith Barnham Opens in new window of Imperial College London says:

“The UK is clearly taking a very different decision to its
industrial competitors and, I believe, a less sensible one. The sun
is our largest sustainable energy source and the technology needed
to tap into it is very simple. As research continues, this will
become an increasingly cheap and efficient way of meeting our
energy needs.”

One obstacle to the development of a competitive solar energy
industry in the UK, according to the article, is a pro-nuclear bias
within its scientific and government establishments. Pointing out
that the UK Research Councils spent seven times more in 2004-2005
on nuclear fusion research and development than it did on
photovoltaic research, Professor Barnham says:

“Fusion is still perhaps 40 years away from being effectively
developed and in any case is likely to produce electricity at one
quarter the electrical power density which the solar cells that we
are working on are already producing in London. It’s absurd that
these funding bodies are putting huge amounts of money into
something that may not deliver rather than supporting something
that already does.”

The next generation of photovoltaic cells, known as quantum well
cells, now under development convert direct sunlight and can track
the sun to keep light focussed on the cell. Early testing suggests
that these concentrated systems could produce twice as much
electricity per unit area as the conventional systems now in use.
Professor Barnham adds:

“These new cells are highly efficient and are based on
technologies similar to those used for the amplifiers in mobile
phones, so the ability to manufacture them on a large scale is
already in place. This is the kind of technology the UK should be
investing in if we are serious about producing pollution-free

For further information contact:

Abigail Smith
Imperial College London Press Office
Tel: 020 7594 6701

Notes to editors:

‘Resolving the energy crisis: nuclear or photovoltaics?’, Nature
Materials, 1 March 2006, K W J Barnham (1), M Mazzer (1), B Clive

1 – Imperial College London
2 – Optical Products Ltd

About Imperial College London

Consistently rated in the top three UK university institutions,
Imperial College London is a world leading science-based university
whose reputation for excellence in teaching and research attracts
students (11,000) and staff (6,000) of the highest international
Innovative research at the College explores the interface between
science, medicine, engineering and management and delivers
practical solutions that enhance the quality of life and the
environment – underpinned by a dynamic enterprise culture.

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