Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Why Wait for Breakthrough Solar Technologies?

"If in 1977 you read a science article reporting that hybrid gas-electric vehicles were not too distant in the future, would you have waited over 20 years to buy a Toyota Prius?"
Homeowners and businesses are saving with solar now

Recently, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said a breakthrough is needed in photovoltaics in order to significantly reduce greenhouse gases (GHG). Secretary Chu, who likes nuclear power, supports more research into making solar cells with cheaper materials reducing installed cost-per-watt immensely thus generating more PV installations resulting in larger GHG reductions.

Researchers have sought to reduce solar panel wholesale pricing below $1 per watt for years. Well, in this year's first quarter First Solar did just that. Furthermore, industry-wide the cost for solar modules are at all-time lows. Besides dogfighting for market share in a weak economy, panel makers have many more manufacturers of high-grade silicon wafers from which to buy than just four years ago. For the first time ever, there are plenty of panels to go around that are much cheaper in cost with appreciable efficiencies.

Today's panels, inverters, racking and trackers are answering the questions of five, ten and twenty years ago. We are seeing the fruits of solar R&D over the past two decades and many solar adopters are seeing the benefits...today. Back then the questions were tougher because no one really knew if a viable market would exist for solar to justify making major R&D investments. Yet visionaries and outliers could see energy costs rising precipitously. In this light, they took their chances.

Innovations such as net metering laws gave solar a boost. This breakthrough--not technological but governmental--eliminated the need for storage batteries, their costly replacement and their recycling issues. In effect, a grid-tied PV system uses the utility as its "back-up battery." Other breakthroughs like feed-in tariffs, rebates and tax credits made PV system pricing more palatable worldwide. The holy grail for solar pricing, according to the book Exponential Solar is .50/watt installed. That puts solar on even keel with fossil fuel and nuclear produced electricity. As demand for solar is going up and pricing going down, that goal could be attainable in the next decade.

Advancements in solar PV are going to happen; it's simply necessary for the players in any growing industry to constantly improve their products to stay competitive. But the existing solar technology can reduce electricity costs while reducing GHG emissions NOW. And even if there is a major breakthrough in PV, existing solar systems will have already saved their owners big on electricity costs and will continue to do so for years to come. Finally, lest we forget, the "new and improved" and the "latest and greatest" always come with a hefty price tag.


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