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Wednesday, March 28, 2007 09:14 pm

Cheap solar

One day, solar technology will be price-competitive with fossil fuels

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Engineers expect solar power to be price-competitive with fossil fuels within 20 years.
PHOTO COURTESY OF GETTY IMAGES
Untitled Document Solar power has not historically been very cost-effective. What will bring costs down to make solar competitive with other energy sources?
The relatively low price of oil and the high cost of developing new technology have prevented the widespread adoption of solar power. At a current cost of 25 to 50 cents per kilowatt-hour, solar power costs as much as five times more than conventional fossil fuel-based electricity — and dwindling supplies of polysilicon, the element found in traditional photovoltaic cells, are not helping. Here’s what slowed solar power, according to Gary Gerber of Berkeley, Calif.-based Sun Light & Power: Soon after Ronald Reagan moved into the White House in 1980, tax credits for solar development disappeared, and the industry plunged “over a cliff.”
Federal spending on solar energy picked up under the Clinton administration but trailed off again once George W. Bush took office. But growing climate-change worries and high oil prices have forced the Bush administration to reconsider its stance on alternatives such as solar, and the White House has proposed $148 million for solar-energy development in 2007, up almost 80 percent from what it invested in 2006.
In the realm of research and development, enterprising engineers are working hard to get solar power’s costs down, and they expect it to be price-competitive with fossil fuels within 20 years. One technological innovator is California-based Nanosolar, which replaces the silicon used to absorb sunlight and convert it into electricity with a thin film of copper, indium, gallium, and selenium, or CIGS. Says Nanosolar’s Martin Roscheisen, CIGS-based cells are flexible and more durable, making them easier to install in a wide range of applications. Roscheisen expects that he will be able to build a 400-megawatt electricity plant for about a tenth of the price of a comparable silicon-based plant. Other companies making waves with CIGS-based solar cells include New York’s DayStar Technologies and California’s Miasolé. Another recent innovation in solar power is the so-called spray-on cell, such as those made by Massachusetts’ Konarka. Like paint, the composite can be sprayed onto other materials, where it can harness the sun’s infrared rays to power cell phones and other portable or wireless devices. Some analysts think spray-on cells could become five times more efficient than the current photovoltaic standard. Environmentalists and mechanical engineers aren’t the only ones bullish on solar these days. According to the Cleantech Venture Network, a forum of investors interested in clean renewable energy, venture capitalists poured some $100 million into solar start-ups of all sizes in 2006 alone and expect to commit even more money in 2007. Given the venture capital community’s interest in relatively short-term returns, it’s a good bet that some of today’s promising solar start-ups will be tomorrow’s energy behemoths.
For more information: Sun Light & Power, www.sunlightandpower.com; Nanosolar, www.nanosolar.com; DayStar Technologies, www.daystartech.com; Miasolé, www.miasole.com; PowerFilm, www.powerfilmsolar.com; Konarka, www.konarka.com. 

Send questions to Earth Talk, care of E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881 or e-mail earthtalk@emagazine.com.
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