Thursday, September 01, 2005

In Response to Comments...

(Posted by John.)

Scott asks:
I have a question about the cost of solar. Aren't solar cells still prohibitively expensive to produce, even factoring in gains for mass production on a global scale?
There are several answers to this question. The first is to say that there have always been ways that governments could have brought the price of solar down, if they'd been so motivated.

One telling example is the US government's far-sighted program in the 1950s to buy transistors in bulk from whoever could make them - it began quickly bringing the price of these new inventions down. A similar program in the 1970s could very likely have brought the price of solar down to the point where it would be competitve with coal today.

Ignoring governments, the major oil companies could have thrown 1% of their earnings towards solar - which would have in no way threatened their business models - and massively stimulated research and development.

The second answer to Scott's question is that, in some cases, solar power is already the cheapest form of energy available - for example, here in Toronto (where I'll soon be leaving) the electricity prices have been capped by the government. If they had not been, however, we'd be seeing prices in the $0.15/kwh range during this last summer, roughly 150% what the best solar panels can produce. In rural areas that are off the grid, solar is often the only source of energy available.

The Third answer to Scott's question is this: Yesterday I exchanged emails with the people at Nanosolar. I have to say, I wish these guys (and presumably gals too) all the luck in the world. If they pull off what they hope to, we're all going to know this company pretty soon.

If you haven't caught the name before, Nanosolar is a company that is trying to apply printing technologies to photovoltaic cell manufacture. Rather than the energy-intensive and costly manufacture silicon cells currently undergo, Nanosolar essentially hopes to run solar power off by the foot. (They've already demonstrated the process - you can watch a video at their website.) The cost savings promise to be revolutionary - $0.50 per installed peak watt of power, compared to $10 for current PV cells, or $1 for coal plants. You read that right - Nanosolar will be able to under-sell coal.

It gets better. In the medium term, they hope to bring that price down even further, to $0.20 per peak watt. At that point, the power to run your home forever would add only a few hundred dollars to your mortgage. Throw some batteries in the basement, make your heavy-use appliances DC instead of AC, and suddenly the solar future is here.

At $.20/Wp, Solar could compete with coal, even taking in to account solar's intermittency. And given their stated figure of an energy payoff in three weeks and a lifetime similar to conventional cells - decades! - the energy profit would be literally orders of magnitude higher.

To recap: In the next year or two, Nanosolar will be introducing cheap solar power that will be able to compete with even our current cheapest source of electricity. If any billionaire investors are reading this site, consider throwing some pretzel moneez their way. Seriously.

Now, it should be said that I'm basing all this on the company's own website and an exchange with someone from (I believe) their PR department. So a grain of salt would not be ill-advised. Still, I hope you can see why I'm excited.


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