Friday, July 1, 2011

Sunny Days Ahead for Solar

Lower Costs, Better Technologies

Grid parity for solar is very close
~ Solar power continues to grow more competitive against other forms of electricity generation. At the just completed German InterSolar trade show module prices are down to $1.40/W and, according to Lux Research, headed to a low point in the second half of this year of $1.20/W. IHS iSuppli research expects PV modules to break the $1.00/W threshold in early 2012. Overall systems are roughly twice the module cost, meaning commercial solar could cost only $2/W (or less) a year from now.

What would such costs for solar mean?

A general comparison from NREL suggests PV solar is very expensive overall, but the data is several years old. Cost comparisons are also extremely site-specific; one technology may come in cheaper in one location over a competitor, but the opposite result can be true in a different location. Finally, some of the trend towards lower cost are the result of a current overcapacity in solar manufacturing and a temporal market reaction of the adjustments in some European feed-in tariffs.

Overall, however, solar costs have been declining in rough accordance with a photovoltaic version of Moore's Law, and this trend has continued for 30 years, transcending the vagaries of silicon prices, boom/bust cycles, and shifting subsidy regimens. PV solar at $2/W looks better than almost anything else in the NREL chart; considering its sustainability advantages makes it look better still. The trends are clear: solar is becoming steadily more competitive with many other technologies, and will be a clear favorite within only a few years.

Meanwhile, there continue to be intriguing advances in solar technology. Of particular interest is Bloo Solar, which has recently closed an $8M funding round, with plans for a further $25M next year:
Bloo is developing a nano-structured 'Solar Brush' based thin-film PV technology. Bloo's Solar Brush modules feature vertically-structured nanowires or brushes which offer nine to twelve chances for photons in sunlight to be absorbed versus just two chances in conventional thin film PV cells.

Bloo Solar is a third generation solar technology that is designed to optimize PV performance by converting more of the sunlight that strikes the modules into electricity utilizing a novel three dimensional substrate structure. By utilizing a three dimensional single junction solar cell, efficiency increases and total daily power output is significantly greater than current technologies.

Planar technology has traditionally been measured in peak daily power efficiency, only part of the equation. Total power produced throughout the day is far more important in the measurement of a solar panel. Bloo's Solar Brush increases the amount of sunlight converted into electricity through superior light trapping driving the cost of energy below grid parity.
Below grid parity. Unless the 30-year trend suddenly changes, it's only a question of time, and that doesn't even consider how current fossil generation technologies will certainly see their costs go up. I saw Bloo present at the local Keiretsu Forum; they've got an impressive team and A-list financial backers. Definitely one to watch.

In light of solar's growing glow, it's hard to take seriously those who complain about solar and its subsidies and supports. There's no doubt that, as with almost any new technology, early solar needed help. It's also easy to understand that the site-specific economics of power generation, especially renewable forms, means that solar may not be the cheapest choice everywhere. Every form of power generation has enjoyed and continues to enjoy tax advantages, subsidies and supports. Picking on support for a technology that will form the backbone of our energy future while ignoring extravagant subsidies for fossil fuels isn't an honest critique.

Support for solar has promoted an industry and spurred the investment and innovation the fruits of which are now on the near horizon—sustainable power at competitive cost without the environmental degradation and externalized costs of our legacy energy system. Let's finish the job, and support solar power entrepreneurs and the solar industry across the finish line. Where we can be finished with fossil fuels.

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