28 Jul 2008

Solar’s Time Has Finally Arrived

After years of optimistic predictions and false starts, it looks like solar's moment is here at last. Analysts say a pattern of rapid growth, technological breakthroughs, and falling production costs has put solar power on the brink of becoming the world's dominant electricity source.
By jon r. luoma

Here’s a thought about generating electricity in the future from a bona fide expert: “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power!”

That was Thomas Edison. The year was 1931.

For the better part of a century, Edison’s forecast went largely unrealized. But after years of optimistic talk and halting progress, solar is finally on the brink of going big-time. Slowly but steadily, solar has been in the throes of a quiet revolution, with efficiencies rising, costs falling, and new technological breakthroughs — including the recent development of nano-thin photovoltaic materials — all dramatically changing the game. Further driving a mass movement toward solar power are two economic imperatives: stratospheric oil prices, and the inevitability of Europe, the United States, and other industrialized nations soon putting a price on carbon to slow global warming.

Today, solar photovoltaic (p.v.) output still represents far less than one percent of the world’s four terawatts (four trillion watts) of electrical generating capacity. But according to some industry analysts, today’s size isn’t the story. The real story is what’s already been happening for more than a decade: a pattern of exponential p.v. growth that now promises to turn the world largely solar, at ever-accelerating speed. Overall bullishness about solar is widespread. BCC Research, a Massachusetts-based market research firm specializing in technology and energy, expects that the global solar sector will grow from $13 billion today to $32 billion by 2012.

Enlarge image
SolFocus, Inc.
One evolving solar energy technology — concentrating photovoltaics — uses mirrors and lenses to amplify the sun’s power 500-1000 times.
“The Gun Has Gone Off” is the title of a report from respected industry tracker Michael Rogol and colleagues at the consulting firm Photon Consulting, summing up what seems to be a consensus among industry analysts. Some long-term growth predictions are simply jaw dropping, including estimates that non-polluting, carbon dioxide-free solar p.v. will become fully price-competitive with coal and nuclear power in most of the world sometime in the next decade or two — without any government or utility incentives. (This goal of so-called “grid parity” is the holy grail of solar enthusiasts.) And with solar costs continuing to plummet into the future, these analysts say, solar will out-compete other forms of electric generation on its own terms until it is preeminent.

We’re heard this kind of thing before. As long ago as the early 1980s, some prognosticators were predicting that solar p.v. manufacturing would reach 1 million watts of annual capacity before the end of the decade. But after President Ronald Reagan pulled the plug on federal solar subsidies initiated by the Carter administration, manufacturing slowed dramatically. And even if today’s prognosticators are correct, large hurdles remain, ranging from reducing manpower-intensive installation costs, to finding ways to store energy produced on sunny days for use at night or in cloudy weather.

So why the optimism surrounding solar today? Trend-trackers say that with little fanfare, solar p.v. production has accelerated into a pattern of rapid growth, with solar cell and assembled panel production roughly doubling every two years beginning in the mid 1990s. Today, solar p.v. appears to be firmly in a pattern of exponential growth and falling overall costs, a pattern that echoes the early mass-production years of past hyper-growth industries: automobiles in the early 20th century, televisions in mid-century, computers toward century’s end.

“It started from a tiny base,” says Ohio engineer David Heidenreich. “But it’s really incredible how long p.v. has been averaging a phenomenal growth rate. Everything we see says there’s no reason that can’t go on for a very long time.” Heidenreich was lead author of a recent industry analysis, entitled Exponential Solar (, which provides a detailed synthesis of studies that analyze solar p.v. growth trends and places them in the context of historical studies of typical manufacturing growth curves.

Growth curve analysis began in the 1930s, with a study at the Wright Airplane Co. that showed how airframe costs fell at an exponential and predictable rate as production increased. Since then, a multitude of studies in a wide range of industries has shown a similar curve, with costs consistently dropping 20 to 30 percent with each doubling of manufacturing. The pattern can prevail for decades.

Consider, just as just one industrial precedent, the television set. In 1946, RCA sold about 10,000 televisions, at a cost of $325 (nearly $4,000 in 2008 dollars). By 1955, with annual U.S. production of 7.4 million sets, a bigger, better TV set cost about one-quarter of that, and a trend of falling costs and improving quality (Living Color!) continued. Ditto for computers, printers, cell phones.

Today, a fully installed solar p.v. system costs a homeowner $7 to $8 per watt of capacity, which means a total system cost of about $35,000 for a typical house. Assuming an average experience curve, that means that with rising output, costs should fall to about $4 per watt by 2012, then $2 per watt by 2021, continuing to fall steadily until reaching a cheaper than cheap 50 cents by 2039, according to Exponential Solar’s model.

In my home U.S. state of New Jersey, where kilowatts are relatively expensive, a rooftop, solar p.v. array folded into a 30-year mortgage would start to make sense without any utility or tax incentives at about $3 a watt, or sometime around 2015. In most of the United States, where power is cheaper, grid parity would come a few years later.

Enlarge image
US Power
Nathan Lewis
Researchers at CalTech have calculated that covering a grid this size — about 61,800 square miles —in the central U.S. with solar panels would supply the entire country with electricity.
Paul Maycock, who directed the U.S. Department of Energy’s photovoltaic office during the Carter Administration, has since run his own p.v. consulting firm. He, too, is convinced that a pattern of exponential growth with falling costs is well in place. But he cautions that rapid solar growth since the mid 1990s has been supported by solar incentives in, principally, Germany and Japan, and more recently in such U.S. states as California and New Jersey.

“The incentives worked their magic — prices went down dramatically,” Maycock says, but he notes that some incentives will need to remain until p.v. reaches grid parity.

Maycock also warns that the trends only play out on average, over time, with inevitable bumps in the road. For example, solar panel prices stopped dropping in the mid-2000s, as soaring demand outstripped supplies of polysilicon, key to the manufacture of conventional cells. Now new silicon supplies are coming on line and price declines should follow.

Maycock — who worked for Texas Instruments in the chip giant’s early years — says the trend should more or less mimic the long pattern of growth and falling costs in the computer chip industry, which also relies on silicon wafers. The integrated circuit industry reduced costs largely by squeezing ever smaller circuits into chips. Solar can’t do that. But it can accomplish something similar by using ever-smaller amounts of material, since all of the electricity-generating action occurs near the surface. Manufacturers of conventional cells in the past have found ways to slice them thinner; newer “thin-film” production technologies use even less photovoltaic material to produce each watt of electricity. Maycock predicts that thin solar film will go from 10 percent of the market today to 30 to 35 percent in 2015.

That kind of growth doesn’t seem at all outlandish to Ray Kurzweil, an inventor and modern-day Edison in his own right. (Kurzweil developed, among other things, voice synthesizers, flat bed scanners, and early speech recognition technology). Noted for some prescient predictions — he forecast years ago that a little-known niche phenomenon called the Internet would one day transform the world — Kurzweil actually strikes an even more optimistic note.

Early this year, in a report commissioned by the National Association of Engineers, Kurzweil — working with a team of analysts that included Google founder Larry Page — concluded that innovations in areas such as nanotechnology will drive a robust growth in solar for years to come. Saying that “we are not that far away from a tipping point where energy from solar will be competitive with fossil fuels,” Kurzweil predicted that solar could meet 100 percent of the U.S.’s energy needs within 20 years.

The sort of innovation that could drive that explosion certainly appears to be underway. Maycock points to U.S.-based First Solar, the first to mass produce ultra-thin solar cells not made of conventional silicon, but of cadmium telluride (CdTe). The company has rapidly become the lowest-cost solar producer in the world, with its cell prices approaching half those of conventional manufacturers. Essentially, its process vaporizes the solar materials and deposits them on inexpensive glass at atom-thin levels. This year, another CdTe plant will begin operating at start-up AVA Solar in Colorado, which plans to ramp up rapidly to 200 million annual watts of production.

Silicon has hardly been knocked out of the game. Applied Materials, a leading supplier of equipment to the integrated circuit industry, has moved into automating solar cell production. In just two years, the company has already built 10 complete assembly lines for solar manufacturers in China and India. Early in 2008, Applied announced that an Indian customer had taken one of the biggest leaps yet, with a new order for a whopping 600 megawatts of p.v. manufacturing capacity, one-sixth of what the entire world produced last year.

California-based Nanosolar, meanwhile, last year began production of its own version of solar, using a material called copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS), which it grinds into infinitesimally tiny particles and prints as a “solar ink” on cheap foil panels. The company has a single printing press-like machine that it says can crank out a billion watts of solar power annually. Other young companies have developed flexible thin-film solar panels with inexpensive metal or plastic substrates that could be simply and cheaply installed. To date, most p.v. installations have been relatively small arrays attached to individual houses, schools, or commercial buildings. But utility scale installations are also growing.

The biggest p.v. technological promise may lie in systems that use mirrors or lenses to concentrate light on highly efficient multi-junction solar cells, vastly leveraging the power of the sun. Companies are now working on deploying these unique cells in concentrator arrays that amplify the sun from 500 to more than 1000 times. SolFocus, for example, with operations in both California and Spain, claims that its system, which rotates on two axes to perfectly track the sun from dawn to dusk, uses only 1/1000th of the solar p.v. material per watt generated of standard solar panels, with most of the system cheap and abundant aluminum and glass.

Meanwhile, p.v. has a competitor in solar thermal, a technology that uses mirrors to concentrate solar heat to produce steam, which can drive a conventional generator. Although it has not been growing at p.v.’s breakneck pace, rising fossil fuel prices seem to be reviving thermal power as well, with two new plants opening since last year in the American Southwest, another 10 on drawing boards for the United States, and well over a dozen planned elsewhere in the world. Solar thermal today can provide a utility with power for about three times the cost of the cheapest fuel, coal, but analysts expect that with growing manufacturing efficiencies, it too will drop in price.

We've relied on combustion for energy since the first caveman rubbed a couple of sticks together. Now, however, we face a gathering global warming storm and a host of other problems brought on by combustion run amok. But there is a solution right outside the door: according to the U.S. Department of Energy, enough solar energy strikes the nation in a single day to power it for a full year. If, as it appears, solar power has at last reached a tipping point, maybe Edison got it right after all.


Jon R. Luoma, a contributing editor at Audubon, has written about environmental and science topics for The New York Times, and for such magazines as National Geographic and Discover. His third book, The Hidden Forest: Biography of an Ecosystem, has been released in a new edition by Oregon State University Press. His last article for Yale Environment 360 was on the use of DNA barcoding for identifying new species.

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I'd like to see more houses built with water heating solar panels to take care of domestic water heating needs and at least partial home heating needs. This would take care of a reasonable percentage of typical home energy usage with a relatively low tech approach. PV is good, but solar panels for water and home heating are an easier less expensive first step.
Posted by Roger on 28 Jul 2008

Check out Honolulu's program. They recently mandated that all houses (with a few exceptions) have solar water heaters installed. They've also proposed a plan to heat and cool buildings using the readily available sea water. You're right that solar heating devices are a good first step and should be implemented widely, but I think given the advances in technology, it's appropriate to push for more PV development. It looks like electricity could be the new "fuel" for our cars, so having a renewable infrastructure to support that shift is key, I think.

More energy solutions:
Posted by Tim on 29 Jul 2008

"Researchers at CalTech have calculated that covering a grid about 61,800 square miles in the central U.S. with solar panels would supply the entire country with electricity.."

What happens at night?
Posted by Dodgy Geezer on 30 Jul 2008

"In my home U.S. state of New Jersey, where kilowatts are relatively expensive, a rooftop, solar p.v. array folded into a 30-year mortgage would start to make sense without any utility or tax incentives at about $3 a watt, or sometime around 2015. "

This appears to assume a 30 year life span of the solar array which is longer than the guaranteed life span of the best roof you can reasonably buy. Do current manufacturers offer a 30 year guarantee? Are there any figures for degradation in array output over time in a real life installed scenario? This seems especially relevant when folks throw around numbers about installations in the desert where there will be abrasion of the surface by wind blown sand and dust.

Even taking into account the government subsidies that have been offered I've been waiting for solar cells to become cost effective enough to install on my south facing roof since building a passive solar house in 1978 in PA. I expect that my grandchildren may install the solar array.
Posted by Sully on 30 Jul 2008

Isn’t this marvelous. Solar is going to save the day. So now we can forget economy destroying schemes such as carbon taxes.
Posted by Chris Maddigan on 30 Jul 2008

Better is to generate electricity for whole the world of the potential energy of Greenland and Antarctic ice masses. There is energy for a thousand years for all the world. And fresh water. No climate catastrophe any more.

You know, letting the ice down, rotating generators, electricity via high voltage direct current cables through the world, ice shipped for all cities and dry areas ....
Posted by jorleh on 31 Jul 2008

Scully says, "This appears to assume a 30 year life span of the solar array which is longer than the guaranteed life span of the best roof you can reasonably buy."

Really? Here in England we cover our roofs in tiles which last for hundreds of years! My own roof has its original tiles from 1958, and not one is cracked.

PVs are obviously the way forward, but we need a huge price drop before they are anywhere near cost-effective due to the current pay-back period. Here, domestic wind turbines have been slated after it has been discovered that they are just not economic. I've seen PVs on roofs and wondered if the owners are any good at mathematics!
Posted by BerkshireBaz on 31 Jul 2008


The solar industry generally follows a degradation rate of .5 to 1% annually. Sharp Solar, one of the largest PV panel mfrs, warrants its panels for 25 years for 80% of original output. Panels can last much longer than that. Think of any other appliance or household product with such longevity.

Wind is also another good renewable source of energy which is also related to the sun. Wind turbines however, do require shutting down for maintenance and lubricants. I see both wind and solar as the Holy Grail for energy's future.
Posted by David Brands on 05 Aug 2008

in this video, a fellow is increasing the electrical in his water4gas installation using solar power panels on top of his dashboard
pretty cool!
more info on Water4Gas is here...
Posted by Garko Factor on 06 Aug 2008

Sully, I am glad to see someone mention
passive solar. While it won't run the refrig
or computer, it should be part of the
broader discussion about alternative
energy to curb greenhouse gases. Anyone
building or remodeling a house on a site
with a good southern exposure suitable for
PV panels should also consider passive
solar design and construction.
Posted by Larry Chamblin on 08 Aug 2008

Do any predictions of PV affordability over time incorporate:

* inflation
* comparison to possible changes in fossil fuel generation cost
* future trends in efficiency of home appliances etc.

Posted by Reed Hedges on 27 Aug 2008

It's about time. Sad though that it takes a fuel crisis to increase sustainable awareness.
Posted by HomeEnergyTv on 06 Sep 2008

Great discussion on PV technology. If you haven't seen it yet check out a new article at

Goes over some new more affordable technology. Also found to be helpful as the install and sell PV and have been dong this for years worldwide.

If enough solar power slams our planet every day to power all our machines and lights for year, it will take companies like these to do it.

The mission: to deliver cost-efficient solar electricity. Their is a company called the Nanosolar company (founded in 2002) that is working to build the world's largest solar cell factory in California and the world's largest panel-assembly factory in Germany. They have successfully created a solar coating that is the most cost-efficient solar energy source ever.

The PV industry is advancing forward by the hour.
Posted by Will Gruver on 10 Sep 2008

PV yields more watts per dollar of installation in
the southwest where the sunshines nearly all of
the time. Electric power can be relatively
inexpensive to ship for long distances,
particularly with an updated grid. The delivered
price of electricity from the southwest is likely
be lower than the cost of local production where
the sun shines less than say 75 percent of the
time, that is most of the country.

PV generates power in the daytime when
demand peaks. PV does not need to be less
expensive than nuclear to be economic at peak
hours, it needs to be less expensive than the
natural gas generation used for peak periods.

To replace nuclear and coal for night use, solar
power needs to have lower production costs and
a relatively inexpensive way to store power
from when the sun shines to periods of
Posted by Malcolm Getz on 14 Sep 2008

Solar thermal power wasn't covered in the article, a remarkable omission.

Solar thermal power plants convert sunshine first to heat, then use steam turbines to generate electricity. 400MW online in the US, thousands of MW in construction in Spain, and 4000MW under contract for construction in the US. Over $800M in venture capital has flowed into the sector in the last 15 months.

Solar thermal power plants generate day and night using heat storage systems. Arizona Public Service is building the world's largest solar power plant that will use nitrate salt (fertilizer) as the heat storage medium. ( Ausra ( has shown that solar thermal power can deliver over 90% of all day-and-night grid energy. Other solar thermal players include Solel, Brightsource, Solar Millennium, and Solar Reserve.

Posted by John O'Donnell on 31 Oct 2008

Great article!

I'll be sure to post it on
Posted by Solar Panel Forum on 08 Feb 2009

“I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power!”

That was Thomas Edison. The year was 1931."

The same statement was made in 1951, 1971, 1991 and now again in 2009. Solar power cannot survive without tax credits, grants and mandated usage at far higher costs than any conventional power source.

The cost of solar is about 15 cents per kwh. The cost of nuclear is less than 2 cents (not including capital costs; it should be noted solar and wind have capital costs at least 1 1/2 times as high.

Solar cannot overcome the limitation that even in desert locations 60% of the time it is non-productive and must utilize fossil fuel to back it up. It replaces no fossil fuel plants, it saves no oil (as no power generators do), it cannot meet our needs and it is unaffordable.

Schemes to save solar energy in batteries, salt caves or mechanically and then using the stored energy take a very poor source of electricity and make it an absolutely horrible source.

Posted by on 20 Mar 2009

Seeking books on PV/Solar energy free of charge for our not-for-profit KIDO Library's Renewable Energy Info Unit by post/courier.

Mrs. Sirin Akhter Librarian
KIDO Library Nahar Peace Garden
202/1 Tutpara Main Road
Khulna Metro # 9100 Bangladesh
Posted by Ms.Sirin Akhter on 24 Mar 2009

I am beyond fed up with those who claim that fossil fuels are cheap. What nonsense. Funny how those who make this claim never mention the externalized costs and subsidies involved in fossil fuel production.

Per Steve Kretzman (Institute for Policy Studies) "On an annual basis, globally, there are at least $250 billion dollars in global fossil fuel subsides, and some people will think that number is closer to $400 billion."

Kretzman says most of the subsidies go into keeping the prices low for consumers, especially for those in developing nations. However, there are also subsidies for the production side. He says a recent study shows $70 billion dollars going to the fossil fuel industry on an annual basis -- much higher than the amount of subsidies for renewables:

"You know, solar, wind, efficiency, these things get about 12 billion on an annual basis, as compared again to $70 [billion] for fossil fuels. So that's a really imbalanced energy market. A few years back, there was a study of climate change, in particular, and it was noted by Nicholas Stern, who was the World Bank's chief economist, that climate change is the greatest market failure of all time, and that the subsidies -- the fossil fuel subsidies -- are the major reason for this market distortion."

FALL, 2009
Cheap coal? Not quite
The coal and oil industries argue that, despite the damage fossil fuels do to our environment, their products remain the economical energy choice.

Not so, according to our study, “The High Cost of Fossil Fuels,” released this June. Under a business-as-usual scenario, America will spend $30 trillion on fossil fuels between 2010 and 2030. By transitioning to a clean energy economy that would save money through efficiency and the switch to renewable energy, we’ll spend $1.7 trillion less during that time while reducing the pollution that causes global warming.

“And it’s not just about lowering our energy bills,” says Environment America’s Emily Figdor. “We’ll save even more when you factor in the health care costs due to fossil fuel-related air pollution, as well as other social costs.”

ANY discussion of the cost of fossil fuel MUST include the externalized costs associated with fossil fuels. Just SOME of those cost include (per Physicians for Social Responsibility):

A Serious Global Warming Culprit
Within the electricity sector, CO2 emissions from coal-fired electricity generation comprise nearly 80 percent of the total emissions, but the share of electricity generation from coal is only 50 percent. This disproportionate carbon footprint is due to the high carbon content of coal relative to other fossil fuels like natural gas. Without the ability to capture and safely store CO2, emissions from the fleet of new coal plants proposed across the country will make it virtually impossible to prevent the worst impacts of global warming. As global temperatures increase, public health will suffer as a result of increased heat waves, more severe storms, worsening air pollution and the spread of vector borne diseases such as malaria and West Nile virus. Sea level rise will severely disrupt the lives of the more than 150 million U.S. residents living in and around our nation’s coastal cities and towns. Across the U.S., the poorest and most vulnerable individuals those least able to adapt will be disproportionately affected as the U.S. public health infrastructure becomes overburdened by the impacts of global warming.

Dirty Power, Dirty Air
In addition to massive CO2 emissions, coal combustion produces a slew of harmful air pollutants. Every year, particulate matter pollution spewed by coal-fired power plants triggers hundreds of thousands of asthma attacks and causes tens of thousands of hospitalizations, heart attacks and early deaths. Coal plant emissions of nitrogen oxide also contribute to the formation of ground level ozone, or smog, which itself is associated with asthma attacks, new onset asthma, heart attacks and angina pain. Coal-fired power plants are also the single largest source of mercury emissions in the U.S. Pregnant women and children are particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of mercury, exposure to which occurs primarily from consuming contaminated fish. As many as 600,000 children are born each year with dangerous levels of mercury in their bodies, putting them at heightened risk for developmental disabilities. This is particularly concerning given the increasing incidence of autism and other neurological problems among U.S. children.

As to the contention that "The cost of solar is about 15 cents per kwh. The cost of nuclear is less than 2 cents (not including capital costs; it should be noted solar and wind have capital costs at least 1 1/2 times as high."

RENAISSANCE OR RELAPSE? by Marc Cooper, he points out:

Half a dozen recent studies of the cost of alternatives, including two by government entities, three by Wall Street analysts and one by an independent analyst. Every author identifies a number of alternatives that are less
costly than nuclear reactors.

The highly touted renaissance of nuclear power is based on fiction, not fact. It got a significant part of its momentum in the early 2000s with a series of cost projections that vastly understated the direct costs of nuclear reactors. As those early cost estimates fell by the wayside and
the extremely high direct costs of nuclear reactors became apparent, advocates for nuclear power turned to climate change as the rationale to offset the high cost. But introducing environmental externalities does not resuscitate the nuclear option for two reasons. First, consideration of externalities improves the prospects of non-fossil, non-nuclear options to respond to climate change. Second, introducing externalities so prominently into the analysis highlights nuclear power’s own environmental problems. Even with climate change policy looming, nuclear power cannot stand on its own two feet in the marketplace, so its advocates are forced to seek to prop it up by shifting costs and risks to ratepayers and taxpayers.
The aspiration of the nuclear enthusiasts, embodied in early reports from academic
institutions, like MIT, has become desperation, in the updated MIT report, precisely because their reactor cost numbers do not comport with reality. Notwithstanding their hope and hype, nuclear reactors are not economically competitive and would require massive subsidies to force them into the supply mix. It was only by ignoring the full range of alternatives -- above all efficiency and
renewables -- that the MIT studies could pretend to see an economic future for nuclear reactors, but the analytic environment has changed from the early days of the great bandwagon market, so that it is much more difficult to get away with passing off hope and hype as reality.
The massive shift of costs necessary to render nuclear barely competitive with the most
expensive alternatives and the huge amount of leverage (figurative and literal) that is necessary to make nuclear power palatable to Wall Street and less onerous on ratepayers is simply not worth it because the burden falls on taxpayers. Policymakers, regulators, and the public should turn their attention to and put their resources behind the lower-cost, more environmentally benign alternatives
that are available. If nuclear power’s time ever comes, it will be far in the future, after the potential of the superior alternatives available today has been exhausted.

Posted by Larry Siegel on 15 Nov 2009

Photovoltaic panels are available today in various presentations, in addition to the classic flat shape: as tiles, flexible laminates, plates etc. semitransparent. This enables the integration of photovoltaic panels on buildings with minimal architectural impact. Cogeneration in commercial buildings to reduce costs and is particularly advantageous when one remembers that the activities are concentrated in these buildings during the day for the availability of solar energy.

From the standpoint of the consumer, the advantage is the direct reduction of the cost of electricity bill. From the standpoint of power system, the advantages are the release of generation capacity and transmission, leveling the load curve, cost reduction and decentralization of generation.

The potential of solar energy is inexhaustible. The sun's energy that reaches the Earth in 40 minutes is equivalent to energy consumption around the world in a year. And certainly this is an excellent alternative way to decrease greenhouse gas emissions in power generation.

Great article and topic discussed!

Posted by Iluminação on 15 Dec 2009



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