Integrated solar panels get a boost

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The 2010 Toyota Prius has 'em. The White House is on its second set. Israel just rolled out a pretty slick array.

It seems like electricity-bill-reducing solar panels are showing up just about everywhere these days (including space!)

But if a rooftop array seems out of the question, or if this isn't something you think your neighbors would appreciate, an announcement this week from Konarka Technology could be encouraging. The Massachusetts company makes flexible organic photovoltaic cells that look more like rolls of film than silicon panels. This week they signed a deal with Florida's Arch Aluminum to put their products into commercial building materials – including windows.

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"Until today, aesthetic and performance concerns limited the ability of architects to use [integrated photovoltaic] technology in their designs," Arch CEO Leon Silverstein said in a statement.

Not to burst anyone's bubble, but this technology is brand new. What do I mean by that? It's expensive – and less efficient than more established options. As CNET's Martin LaMonica writes:

these organic photovoltaics aren't very efficient at converting sunlight to electricity and won't last as long as a rooftop solar panel, which is typically under warranty for 25 years. Konarka said late last year that it achieved 6 percent efficiency in its labs but that's not yet available in its products. A high-efficiency silicon solar cell, the most common cell material, can be over 20 percent.

Still, the development is a step forward. Solar power has long been criticized for its high cost. But as the Monitor's Mark Clayton points out, that's beginning to change. Give organic photovoltaics a few years to develop, and their applications will start to expand – and prices will drop.

As promising as this new development is, the debate is far from finished over what's better: a home photovoltaic system, or just striving for good energy efficiency. And, if these tough economic times make it hard to consider any investments in any sort of energy-efficient home improvements, a white roof (really!) might be a good substitute.

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