The Reality of Solar Panels at 50% Cost

Logo: U.S. Department of Energy Blog

The Department of Energy has launched a blog of its own.  Secretary of Energy Chu explains it is “to show you who we are, what we do, and why it matters to you,while allowing you to connect with us in new and creative ways.”

From time to time, I will highlight their best posts.  Here is onefrom Arun Majumdar, Director for the Advanced Research Projects Agency — Energy, “The Reality of Solar Panels at 50% Cost“:

Last week, residents in the Baltimore-Washington area experienced their 42nd day of 90+ degree temperatures this year.  Wouldn’t it be nice tocapture more of that intense sunlight and convert it into electricity?

Modern photovoltaic cells (more commonly known as solar panels) were invented in the 1950s at Bell Laboratories.  But despite the passage of over fifty years, solar energy’s fullpotential has yet to be tapped due in part to the cost of actuallyputting the pieces of a solar panel together — installing solar panelsstill far exceeds the cost of using traditional fossil fuels like coaland natural gas.

Today, solar panels are made from flat wafers of silicon, anabundant, inexpensive material commonly found as sand on the beach(silicon dioxide). Silicon acts as a semiconductor when light forceselectrons through it, creating electricity.  Currently, the siliconwafers used in solar panels are created by producing large siliconblocks, which are then sawed into wafers.  Much of the silicon is lostin this sawing process as “sawdust.”  Then, after sawing, the wafersrequire an expensive and laborious chemical process to make themsmooth.

As you can imagine, the manufacturing costs associated with making the silicon wafers can be prohibitively high.  That’s where 1366 Technologies, the recipient of $4 million of ARPA-E funding, comes in:


1366 Technologies is developing a novel manufacturingprocess that creates silicon wafers directly from molten silicon,without all the costly intermediary steps.  Moreover, 1366Technologies’ silicon wafers can be made thinner than current wafers,performing at least as well as today’s technology but at significantlylower cost.  Solar electricity currently costs at least $4/watt fullyinstalled – 1366 Technologies hopes to bring this cost down to under$2/watt fully installed, a reduction in cost by more than 50 percent. This single innovation could bring the cost of solar electricity downto between the costs of coal and natural gas.

The U.S. currently obtains less than 1 percent of its electricityfrom solar energy.  If 1366 Technologies’ process is successful, solarenergy could finally become cost competitive with fossil sources, andsolar energy could provide a major share of our electricity. Additionally, this sort of breakthrough would invigorate the U.S. solar industry, generating many new jobs and allowing the U.S. to recapturemarket share from our overseas competitors. Now, wouldn’t that make the summer sun more bearable?

This isn’t the only innovative technology ARPA-E is proud of.  Visit ARPA-E’s website to see the additional 116 projects we’ve selected to fund.



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