The trade association for the nuclear power industry recently asked 1,000 Americans what energy source they thought would be used most for generating electricity in 15 years. The top choice? Not nuclear plants, or coal or natural gas. The winner was the sun, cited by 27 percent of those polled.
It is no wonder solar power has captured the public imagination. Panels that convert sunlight to electricity are winning supporters around the world — from Europe, where gleaming arrays cloak skyscrapers and farmers’ fields, to Wall Street, where stock offerings for panel makers have had a great ride, to California, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Million Solar Roofs” initiative is promoted as building a homegrown industry and fighting global warming.
But for all the enthusiasm about harvesting sunlight, some of the most ardent experts and investors say that moving this energy source from niche to mainstream — last year it provided less than 0.01 percent of the country’s electricity supply — is unlikely without significant technological breakthroughs. And given the current scale of research in private and government laboratories, that is not expected to happen anytime soon.