Rapid changes in the solar power sector are fueling a green energyrevolution. With so much emphasis on solving the global warming puzzle,technology in solar is advancing very quickly and may be the answerwe’ve been looking for. Let’s take a look at how this industry ischanging so quickly.
1. Solar Panel Prices Are Coming Down – And Fast
Thebiggest detractor for solar in the past has been simple: it was justtoo expensive to be practical. Coal generated power was as much as 90%cheaper than solar power. But with the massive investment in productioncapacity, coupled with the global economic slowdown, prices on solarpanels have come down anywhere from 10%-30% in the last 6 months. Thismeans that many projects that were borderline before are now feasible.And the trend appears to be gaining steam. Prices on Sharp solar panels,for instance, have been lowered 3 times since May, bringing their costinto the $4/watt range. Just last year they were closer to $5/watt.
2. Solar Film Will Drive Prices Even Lower
Companies such as FirstSolar, Nanosolar, and Sharp are quickly bringing solar film,also called thin-film solar, to market. We’ve been promised thisamazing technology for years and it seems its finally here. Thin filmis manufactured in a way that is similar to printing, and the productoften comes in a roll. This is a much more efficient way of producingcells than the traditional solar panel, which was made in a processsimilar to microchips. We are seeing initial pricing on this newtechnology in the $1 to $2/watt range.
3. Efficiency is Getting Better
Solarefficiency is the measure of power produced versus the sun’s energythat hits the panel. In the past any efficiency over 15% was seen asgood, and approaching 20% was great. Now such panels as SunPower’s areregularly achieving 22%. That means more bang for buck and more energyproduced for every square inch of panel installed.
4. Thin Film Efficiency is Better Too
Solar film is levelling the field on efficiency.Thin film traditionally had efficiencies in the 10% area, roughly halfthe efficiency of crystalline panels. While that measured quantity hastrended up slightly, industry professionals are finding that actualproduction is higher. This is because the film produces better indiffuse light and partially shaded conditions than panels. In oneproject in Israel, installers recently found that the thin film solaronly required 25% more surface area compared to crystalline panels toproduce the same energy. This means that actual efficiency is probablycloser to 15% for film.
5. Utility Scale Solar is Blossoming
Utilityscale solar is PV power for the masses, brought to you through yourtraditional power lines. Usually the power plants are located indesert areas with ample sunshine. They often use a technology calledconcentrated photovoltaics (CPV) that uses mirrors, tracking devices,and advanced solar paneltechnology to squeeze (almost) every drop of energy from sunlight. Dueto new federal rules on depreciation, generous tax credits, andtechnological advances, utilities and investors can install thesesystems profitably. In the next 5-10 years we will probably see therecord for largest CPV installation broken several times over. Projects in Colorado, California, and Arizona are already under way andwill vie for the nation’s largest when complete.
6. Power Is Getting More Expensive
Whilethis isn’t necessarily good news, it’s certainly overdue. Until wewrap the true environmental cost of producing carbon into the cost ofelectricity, our environmental picture will not improve. Whether we dothat through cap and trade, a carbon tax, or another way, it means thatpower is going to cost more in the short term. This increased costwill encourage energy efficiency and drive improvement in theproduction, transportation, and storage of electricity. It will alsomake solar power look more attractive.
7. Research Will Only Fuel the Revolution
Speakingof innovation, research and development will change the industry inways we’re not even aware of yet. Our wonderful university researchprograms are driving tremendouschanges in the industry. Energy has become a focus of federaland industry dollars, much the way telecommunications and informationtechnology was in the last decade. College programs now emphasizeenergy efficiency in all aspects of design and engineering, andintegrating solar in buildings, vehicles, and even clothing have becomethe norm. It seems like every week we hear about a breakthrough insolar panels, thin film solar, and battery technology in our university research programs
8. Massive Investment Will Incubate the Next Energy Stars
Onesure sign of change to come is when Silicon Valley venture capital getsinvolved. These funds are only interested in investing in sectors thatare rapidly growing and can make gobs of money in a short time. Sowhen you hear they are investing billions of dollars in photovoltaictechnology, and a new deal seems to be coming every week, you can betthere are big things on the horizon. These prognosticators may not beright all the time, but you can bet they don’t throw their money awayat weak prospects. The same guys who made huge bets on Google, Yahoo,and Netscape are now putting their chips on the energy sector, andspecifically solar power.