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From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine
The Sun is Rising on Affordable Solar Electricity
On the bright side: expensive oil, global warming and innovation
I’m pro-solar for the sake of the environment, but solar power has not historically been cost-effective. What innovations are coming that will bring costs down to make solar competitive with other energy sources?
Will Proctor, Richmond, VA
The prospect of generating pollution-free power from the sun’s rays is appealing, but to date the low price of oil combined with the high costs of developing new technology have prevented the widespread adoption of solar power in the U.S. and beyond. At a current cost of 25 to 50 cents per kilowatt-hour, solar power costs up to five times more than conventional fossil fuel-based electricity. And dwindling supplies of polysilicon, the element found in traditional photovoltaic cells, are not helping.
Not long after Ronald Reagan moved into the White House in 1980 and removed the solar collectors from the roof that Jimmy Carter had installed, according to Gary Gerber of the Berkeley, California-based Sun Light & Power, 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. Now growing climate change worries and high oil prices have forced the Bush administration to reconsider its stance on alternatives like 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 working hard to get solar power’s costs down 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. These thin-layered cells are flexible and more durable, says Nanosolar’s Martin Roscheisen, making them easier to install in a wide range of applications. Roscheisen expects he will be able to build a 400-megawatt electricity plant for about one-tenth the price of a comparable silicon-based plant. Other companies making waves with the thin-layered 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. 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, according to the Cleantech Venture Network, a forum of investors interested in clean renewable energy. 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.
Got an environmental question? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek: or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.