SolarCity and Elon Musk announce solar energy breakthrough

The company unveiled a new solar panel that generates electricity with a record 22 percent efficiency, and continues to work toward maximizing American access to renewable energy. 

Mark Von Holden
SolarCity Founder & CEO Lyndon Rive, Chairman Elon Musk, and SolarCity Founder & COO Peter Rive celebrate the company’s IPO by posing for a photo at the NASDAQ Stock Market on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012 in New York.

Tapping into the unceasing power of the sun, SolarCity, a company that Elon Musk helped found, announced its latest breakthrough in making solar energy more viable: It has created what it calls the "world’s most efficient" solar panel.

On Friday, Mr. Musk and and his cousin, SolarCity CEO Lyndon Rive, introduced a solar panel with 22.04 percent peak module efficiency. This measures how much energy panels generate from sunlight. The average residential panel can convert 14 to 20 percent while industrial-scale panels are more efficient. A plant, for the record, is about 5 percent efficient using photosynthesis.

Compared to current technologies, however, this so called “holy-grail” of home solar energy doesn’t mark too significant of a change. SunPower’s X-Series panels, for instance, have 21.5 percent module-level efficiency.

More efficient panels do exist, but because they use special materials, it would not be practical to use them due to high manufacturing costs. For companies like SolarCity, it’s matter of weighing efficiency with cost.

But the ultimate goal for the sun-powered company, Mr. Rive says, is to make the technology available to a larger percentage of American homes.

Currently, SolarCity is by far the nation’s largest installer of residential solar panels. Conceived on a drive to Burning Man, SolarCity began its operations installing panels in 2006 using Chinese-made solar panels and store-bought mounting hardware. Using software to help figure which setup would be right for each customer, SolarCity sought to make home solar panels simple and affordable.

Eventually, SolarCity began to manufacture its own mounting material and offering financing programs so customers can opt to pay for equipment on a month-by-month basis. Then it became clear that the company needed to manufacture its own panels.

Over the past few years, SolarCity has welcomed thousands of new employees across the United States and is currently in the process of building North America’s biggest solar-panel manufacturing facility in Buffalo, New York.

The panels exhibited Friday were the next step in the company’s evolution. Not only are they more efficient in producing energy, they’ll also cut the cost of installation by up to 30 cents per watt.

Traditionally, solar panels have been found at high-income households, as panels are expensive and call for big rooftop space. SolarCity is now challenging this notion. In a partnership with another solar panel installation firm, Everyday Energy, the company announced Thursday its new project to lower the cost of sun power. Working with affordable-housing developers, SolarCity will install panels for residents to receive credits – no more than a few dozen dollars per family – toward their utility bill.

"Access to solar continues to increase to more communities across the state," Sanjay Ranchod, vice president of policy at SolarCity, told Bloomberg. "SolarCity and the solar industry want to accelerate that."

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