Solar News
Can Solar Really Get to $1 a Watt
June 28th, 2011

The Department of Energy earlier this year unveiled a program, called SunShot, to bring the price of solar down to $1 a watt by 2017 and 73 cents by 2030.

At that price solar energy will be competitive with conventional forms of electricity.

But is it possible? Crystalline silicon modules now can sell for $1.48 per watt with the cost of fully installed solar systems topping $3 and $4.

Modules will have to drop to 50 cents to hit the $1 per watt goal. The installation and balance-of-system costs will have to plunge from around $1.70 cents to 40 cents. Inverter costs will need to drop to ten cents per watt.

The industry has a long record of driving down costs. Solar modules cost $21.83 back in 1980 (in adjusted-for-inflation dollars) so they cost 14 times less today than they did back then. Compare that to other types of energy. Oil cost $28 a barrel back in 1982. Now it’s over $100 a barrel. So score one for the Moore’s Law-like power of solar.

Solar, however, will never be a free lunch. Although some have proposed harvesting solar from dyes or paints, the vast majority of solar modules over the next two decades will be produced from refined and raw materials: ingots of nearly pure silicon, plastic protective membranes, silver or copper interconnects, glass and aluminum structures.

 

Some cost cutting could be easy. Integrating solar modules into prefabricated racks at the factory for “power plants in a box” can shave onsite labor and shipping costs.

Concentrators–mirrors and/or lenses that artificially increase the amount of sunlight that strikes a solar cell–seem to be gaining favor finally too. Because mirrors cost less than cells, concentrators can cut costs by 20 percent, says Dick Swanson, founder of SunPower. Some companies, such as ZenithSolar, have come up with high-powered concentrators that permit a single cell to generate up to 2 kilowatts of electricity.

One of the most important developments lay in thinner wafers. Crystal Solar says it can reduce wafer thickness from 160 microns to 20 to 50 microns. Solar cells made from its process will produce 1 watt of power with a gram of silicon. 1366 Technologies says its thinning technology can cut the cost of wafers from 72 cents a watt to 25 cents a watt and usher in the $1 per watt era. Alta Devices, Astrowatt, Twin Creeks Technologies and Ampulse promise something similar.

So what’s the ugly reality? Thin wafers require completely new handling mechanisms. The concept has also been tried in the past.

Worse, some of the rising costs of solar have nothing to do with technology. They involve paperwork. One solar installer, Sungevity, says 30 percent of its employees spend their day ensuring that a residential project complies with local building codes. Utility-scale solar projects often must pass through the meat grinder of public hearings before becoming reality.

Is $1 a watt possible, or will our best intentions get in the way?

[Source: ecomagination]

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