Will solar power ever be as cheap as coal?
Some predict that within five years, it could rival fossil-fuel energy.
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For 1366 Technologies, whose name is derived from the “solar constant” of 1,366 watts per square meter that strike Earth every moment, the immediate goal is to produce a 3 percentage point gain in cell efficiency. While boosting a solar cell’s efficiency from 15 percent to 18 percent may sound trivial, it would mean a huge cut in production costs, from $2.20 cents per watt today to $1 a watt – without federal or state subsidies, van Mierlo says.Skip to next paragraph
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At that $1-a-watt level, 1366 Technologies claims it could produce solar panels with cells delivering electricity to a home as cheaply as the delivered cost of coal power – about 10 cents per kwh.
“It’s not hyperbole to say that we’re within reach of grid parity,” van Mierlo says. Adding to that $1 a watt a modest profit and cost of installation, the delivered cost of power would be about $3 a watt – or 18 cents per kwh – without any subsidies. At that rate, a rooftop residential solar module would produce power on par with the cost of grid power in the Northeast today.
Others are less sure. “Relative to every other significant generation source, solar is still quite expensive today,” says Jim Owen, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned utilities. “This technology holds significant promise, particularly utility-scale solar thermal technology. We want to tap into solar technologies and the sooner the better, but it doesn’t seem around the corner.”
Still, an array of experts agree that solar could cause a “disruptive” shift in US energy generation five years from now. When “grid parity” for solar arrives at that time, the nation will likely see sharp growth in solar panels installed on residential rooftops, driven not by environmental concerns, but by a desire for more economical electricity, these energy industry analysts say.
Next year, enough solar panels will be sold in the US to generate 330 megawatts of power, the FBR projects. But the US could well see a 20-fold rise in US solar panel sales by 2013, enough to power about 3.5 million homes with two-kilowatt rooftop solar arrays, it says.
That surge could arrive faster with new federal tax credits that cover 30 percent of the cost of a solar installation. In some states, the news is even better for solar customers.
“The reality is that even today, there are some places in California where, with state incentives, solar already has grid parity,” says Robert Margolis, senior energy analyst for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Nationwide, the date is closer to 2015, he says.
“Even the credit crisis, funny enough, may actually accelerate it by temporarily squelching demand and causing solar prices to come down faster,” says Travis Bradford, president of the Prometheus Institute, a think tank focused on solar power.
Several analysts expect the solar panel industry to soon enter a brutal shakeout that will eliminate many weaker companies, but also benefit consumers by chopping solar panel costs in half.
Right now companies like Nanosolar that already have funding have soldiered on. Van Mierlo says 1366 is shepherding its resources. It could launch a manufacturing facility in 2010, but the company can afford to wait patiently, refining cell-manufacturing technologies until the perfect moment for full production, he says.
“In five to seven years, the idea of building a home without solar energy on it will be as silly as building without plumbing,” Mr. Bradford says.