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Saturday, July 07, 2007

Cheap solar on the way?

The fossil fuel industry won't like to hear this:
Within five years, solar power will be cheap enough to compete with carbon-generated electricity, even in Britain, Scandinavia or upper Siberia. In a decade, the cost may have fallen so dramatically that solar cells could undercut oil, gas, coal and nuclear power by up to half. Technology is leaping ahead of a stale political debate about fossil fuels.

Anil Sethi, the chief executive of the Swiss start-up company Flisom, says he looks forward to the day - not so far off - when entire cities in America and Europe generate their heating, lighting and air-conditioning needs from solar films on buildings with enough left over to feed a surplus back into the grid.

The secret? Mr Sethi lovingly cradles a piece of dark polymer foil, as thin a sheet of paper. It is 200 times lighter than the normal glass-based solar materials, which require expensive substrates and roof support. Indeed, it is so light it can be stuck to the sides of buildings.


The "tipping point" will arrive when the capital cost of solar power falls below $1 (51p) per watt, roughly the cost of carbon power. We are not there yet. The best options today vary from $3 to $4 per watt - down from $100 in the late 1970s.

Mr Sethi believes his product will cut the cost to 80 cents per watt within five years, and 50 cents in a decade.

Could be why the oil and coal moguls have been trying so hard to extract all the hydrocarbons they can from the ground (by, e.g. drilling in ANWR, ripping tops off mountains) while the profits were still good?

And this isn't coming just from a guy marketing his company's product, and there is reasonable to think it could happen, if we want it to:

Michael Rogol, a solar expert at Credit Lyonnais, expects the solar industry to grow from $7bn in 2004 to nearer $40bn by 2010, with operating earnings of $3bn.

The sector is poised to outstrip wind power. It is a remarkable boom for a technology long dismissed by experts as hopelessly unviable.

Mr Rogol said he was struck by the way solar use had increased dramatically in Japan and above all Germany, where Berlin's green energy law passed in 2004 forces the grid to buy surplus electricity from households at a fat premium. (In Britain, utilities may refuse to buy the surplus. They typically pay half the customer price of electricity.)

The change in Germany's law catapulted the share price of the German flagship company SolarWorld from €1.38 (67p) in February 2004 to over €60 by early 2006.

The tipping point in Germany and Japan came once households twigged that they could undercut their unloved utilities. Credit Lyonnais believes the rest of the world will soon join the stampede.

Hmmm... maybe if net metering laws are made more favorable to the consumer across the US, we will see a similar motivation for building owners to install solar.

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As stated, the price must drop below $050/watt. But one day, we could see the grid become free for all, with each home having solar panels enough to supply all the power for the home plus input to the grid for those less fortunate. However, what will likely happen is that the solar power would be used to generate hydrogen which then would be used in fuel cells to generate the electric power with surplus to the grid and the surplus hydrogen to the natural gas grid.
chtank, interesting thought. I don't understand the reason for solar -> hydrogen -> electricity though. Don't you lose energy whenever you change the form?
Are you suggesting that because of the cost / feasibility of battery storage of surplus solar power?
The best way to bring the changes we need in the economy and the environment is by creating local jobs to improve our infrastructure to lessen the impact on the environment. I feel really inspired after reading Thinking Big, especially the essay called An Inclusive Green Economy by Van Jones and Jason Walsh. They took the idea of green collar jobs farther and suggest a Clean Energy Corps be created that is a combined service, training, and job creation effort, concentrated in cities and struggling suburban and rural communities. Basically the idea is that price and the market are too slow to base the shift to a green economy on, which I totally agree with, and we should have a governing body put into place that coordinates green collar efforts to maximize efficiency and opportunity creation for Americans. We need the government involved in creating jobs, not just handing money out to industries.
The new panels work by using special acrylic lenses to concentrate the sun's rays on photovoltaic cells while the panel moves to track the sun's movement across the sky. But still on testing period.
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