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Hoping for a Solar Breakthrough

The CEO of Eni would like to see new, cheaper solar technologies.

As CEO of Eni, the Italian oil and natural gas giant, Paolo Scaroni heads one of the world’s largest petroleum companies. Eni’s commercial portfolio of energy technologies does not currently include solar power, but Scaroni came to MIT this week with an eye on longer-term opportunities, helping to officially open the Eni-MIT Solar Frontiers Center.

Eni’s CEO Paolo Scaroni.

Eni has committed $50 million to MIT energy research, including $25 million for the solar center, which was originally announced in 2008. And Scaroni was clearly interested in seeing what the company was getting for its money. On display were the center’s recent inventions, including the first solar cell printed on paper. Scaroni said he believes that existing alternative-energy technologies are not yet ready for wide-scale deployment, and that eventual success in replacing petroleum will depend on the development of new technologies and devices. “If only 10 percent of what I have seen [at the MIT center] materializes,” he suggested, “it would change the world.”

After Scaroni toured the MIT labs, Technology Review’s editor, David Rotman, asked him what opportunities and challenges he sees with renewable energies.

TR: You don’t think solar power is ready to make a significant impact in replacing petroleum?

Paolo Scaroni: I’m not very familiar with U.S. numbers. I’m more familiar with the European numbers. In order to make commercially sellable solar energy, you have to pay, depending on the country and the situation, between four and six times what you pay for thermal energy. Which means that if in a European country all the electricity comes from solar, the bill would be between four to six times higher than it is today.

TR: So it’s not economically practical?

PS: No, it is not practical, with the price of the technology.

TR: Eni currently has no existing business in solar power.

PS: Solar energy in the world is less than 1 percent. So it is still really a minute number.

TR: You’re waiting for a breakthrough?

PS: We need a breakthrough. And I think the breakthrough will be around replacing silicon. Silicon is expensive, heavy, and has a conversion of around 12 percent, which is not bad. But if we can improve it, it would change completely the whole commercial perspective. There is also the problem of density, because you need to cover a large surface to produce a fairly small amount of energy [with solar power]. When you have a thermal power station, with a small surface area, you produce a lot of energy.

TR: Do you think, however, that consumers will be willing to pay more for alternative energies?

PS: I’m not sure about that. Of course, it depends very much on the price of oil. Cheap oil is the biggest enemy of renewables. We need to have a price of oil which is in the region of $80, $90 a barrel to make the price of renewables acceptable–still expensive but acceptable. Of course, if oil prices go to $30 a barrel, then renewables would be killed.

TR: Any other alternative energies besides solar that interest you?

PS: In some countries wind is certainly a good alternative. But of course to produce wind energy, you need wind. People tend to forget you need constant wind for many hours a day. And normally in the countries or in the regions where you have a lot of constant wind, there is not a lot of population because people don’t like to live in places where there is a lot of wind. So you have the additional problem of transporting the electricity from where you produce it to where you use it. But where you have constant wind, such as places like the U.K., Spain, some parts of Denmark, wind is an alternative. But the key issue around all renewables is storage. If we don’t solve the problem of storage, we’re going nowhere. Solar is fantastic but what happens during the night or what happens if you have no sun? So storage research is key.

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