Energy Department launches Blog: “The Reality of Solar Panels at 50% Cost”

Logo: U.S. Department of Energy Blog

The Department of Energy has launched a blog of its own.  Secretary of Energy Chu explains it is “to show you who we are, what we do, and why it matters to you, while allowing you to connect with us in new and creative ways.”

From time to time, I will highlight their best posts.  Here is one from Arun Majumdar, Director for the Advanced Research Projects Agency — Energy, “The Reality of Solar Panels at 50% Cost“:

Last week, residents in the Baltimore-Washington area experienced their 42nd day of 90+ degree temperatures this year.  Wouldn’t it be nice to capture more of that intense sunlight and convert it into electricity?

Modern photovoltaic cells (more commonly known as solar panels) were invented in the 1950s at Bell Laboratories.  But despite the passage of over fifty years, solar energy’s full potential has yet to be tapped due in part to the cost of actually putting the pieces of a solar panel together — installing solar panels still far exceeds the cost of using traditional fossil fuels like coal and natural gas.

Today, solar panels are made from flat wafers of silicon, an abundant, inexpensive material commonly found as sand on the beach (silicon dioxide). Silicon acts as a semiconductor when light forces electrons through it, creating electricity.  Currently, the silicon wafers used in solar panels are created by producing large silicon blocks, which are then sawed into wafers.  Much of the silicon is lost in this sawing process as “sawdust.”  Then, after sawing, the wafers require an expensive and laborious chemical process to make them smooth.

As you can imagine, the manufacturing costs associated with making the silicon wafers can be prohibitively high.  That’s where 1366 Technologies, the recipient of $4 million of ARPA-E funding, comes in:

1366 Technologies is developing a novel manufacturing process that creates silicon wafers directly from molten silicon, without all the costly intermediary steps.  Moreover, 1366 Technologies’ silicon wafers can be made thinner than current wafers, performing at least as well as today’s technology but at significantly lower cost.  Solar electricity currently costs at least $4/watt fully installed – 1366 Technologies hopes to bring this cost down to under $2/watt fully installed, a reduction in cost by more than 50 percent.  This single innovation could bring the cost of solar electricity down to between the costs of coal and natural gas.

The U.S. currently obtains less than 1 percent of its electricity from solar energy.  If 1366 Technologies’ process is successful, solar energy could finally become cost competitive with fossil sources, and solar energy could provide a major share of our electricity.  Additionally, this sort of breakthrough would invigorate the U.S. solar industry, generating many new jobs and allowing the U.S. to recapture market share from our overseas competitors. Now, wouldn’t that make the summer sun more bearable?

This isn’t the only innovative technology ARPA-E is proud of.  Visit ARPA-E’s website to see the additional 116 projects we’ve selected to fund.

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11 Responses to Energy Department launches Blog: “The Reality of Solar Panels at 50% Cost”

  1. Jeff Huggins says:

    Great, Audience and Clarity, and a Recent Visit to Shasta Dam

    I’m glad to see this, and I enjoyed reading this piece.

    Just a couple quick thoughts …

    This particular piece was written in a friendly and (for the most part) understandable fashion, but my suggestion is that they (the new DOE blog folks) keep in mind the audience they are writing to as much as possible, in every line.

    For example, they write “Solar electricity currently costs at least $4/watt fully installed –“. In doing so, they are using some shortcut jargon that is well understood by many people, I think, but would be confusing to others. Unless I’m mistaken, this is not really the cost of the “solar electricity” itself, but instead they are referring to the cost of the plant (equipment) to generate solar electricity, expressed in terms of the installed cost of the plant per watt of generating capacity. Yes?

    So, with just a slight amount of more “paying attention to the elimination of jargon or shortcuts”, the posts can be made more easily understandable to a broader audience. This depends, of course, on who they want their audience to be.

    On a side (but related) note, I recently visited Shasta Dam, in northern Northern California. It’s a huge one. It was built as part of the big public projects during the Great Depression, along with Grand Coulee Dam, Hoover Dam, and so forth. In my lifetime, I’ve now visited all of those: There’s something about dams that is damn impressive. But what struck me this time is what can be done — for purposes of energy and water and so forth — when society has a mind to DO something. Today, here we sit, with many people needing work, and with society at large in need of a major energy transition, and we seem to be doing things on the scale of maintaining street gutters and sidewalks, building five-story buildings, and putting in an overpass here or there, rather than tackling the immense scale of work needed to kick-start an energy transition. Looking at the pictures of thousands of people building Shasta Dam is impressive, and we seem to be doing nothing like it today. We seem to not have the imagination or the will to do anything like that today — not dams, mind you, but major transmission projects, major CSP projects, and so forth. Indeed, we are handcuffing ourselves.

    Anyhow, I like the idea of the DOE blog, and it will be nice to see some of their best pieces here.

    Be Well,


  2. catman306 says:

    Excellent! Good news, we need more good news.

    We need to turn off the money spigot to big oil and redirect the flow to renewables, REAL renewables.
    All of these have existed in nature for millions of years, so Gaia won’t object to our using them and give us even more climate change.

    Gaia is upset with some human ‘progress’ and is letting us know that we must change are ways or perish.. Here’s a few:
    fossil fuel
    synthetic chemicals that have never existed in nature
    concentrated heavy metals
    concentrated natural chemicals
    widespread forest clearing
    overpopulation both local and worldwide
    hydroelectric dams

    There’s always a trade-off when something ‘new’, especially if applied widely, is added to our civilization. Whatever short-term gain achieved must be weighed against the long term losses that any change invokes.
    It takes education, research, and political will to look at the long term effects of a change.

  3. SecularAnimist says:

    It would be great to have a summary of the various PV technologies that are in various stages of development, including improvements in silicon-wafer panels such as this article describes, as well as the CIGS-based thin film PV panels, concentrating PV (using Fresnel lenses), and other more exotic materials. For someone who is considering residential PV, does it make sense to buy today’s commercially available technology, or to wait for something more powerful and cheaper that might be right around the corner?

  4. allen says:

    It would also be nice, and much more accurate, that when DOE says that the cost of solar still far exceeds the costs of fossil fuels that they include the caveat that this pricing excludes externalities (like ghgs and oil spills) and also excludes fossil subsidies (that last point might be too political for the agency, but the first is objective fact).

  5. ToddInNorway says:

    First Solar, the world leader in thin-film PV, already delivers complete PV systems in the MW size for 2.5 – 3 dollars/watt, with all mounting and balance and system.

  6. Steve Bloom says:

    I would have hoped that the director of ARPA-E would have known better than to lead the article with this sort of confusion:

    “Last week, residents in the Baltimore-Washington area experienced their 42nd day of 90+ degree temperatures this year. Wouldn’t it be nice to capture more of that intense sunlight and convert it into electricity?”

    Of course the intensity of sunlight has absolutely nothing to do with how hot it’s been.


  7. David says:

    So basically, nobody should be buying solar panels now because in just a few years they’ll cost half as much? Got it.

  8. Omega Centauri says:

    SA @3. One way out of your dilemma is to compromise. Buy a partial scale system. Last year I bought a system that will provide 60-65% of my needs. Not ideal. At first I thought you had to go big in order to get decent cost per peak watt. But the hit for going smallish wasn’t much. 2009 and 2010 have the 30% federal tax rebate, with which you can absorb some of the future price risk. Also it is great economic stimulus. At least you can get a small piece of the stimulus spending allocated to the energy transition. In investing they call buying a stock one piece at a time “dollar cost averaging”. To a limited extent you can do that with PV by starting small, and upgrading/expanding later.

  9. Prokaryotes says:

    I bet, coal companies can earn more money with creating biochar and with renewable energy generations.

  10. Gord says:

    Here at The Ravina Project we have had our solar panels up for almost 4 years. All our data is on-line.

    So the breakdown when we purchased the panels in the summer of 2006 was $15,000 for 1,500 Watts of generation capacity. So $10 a Watt. We spent about $15,000 extra in the installation and other technologies to finish the project. We have a large capacity 4000 Watt inverter, 18 kWh of deep cycle batteries, a solar charge controller, a custom made programmable and movable structure on the roof to compensate for the sun’s altitude in the sky. All that plus taxes added up to about $30,000.

    The vision from the beginning here was to do research on many aspects of household PV generation plus household thermodynamics. We also wanted a solar charged UPS for the house incorporated into the design. Just looking at it from a $ per installed Watt of solar, it is $20/Watt!

    We are in year 4 of our initially planned 5 year project.

    Here’s some of what is becoming clear to us.

    1. PV uses no water in the generation process. In a world where surface and even fossil water are at a premium this fact is becoming more and more important.

    2. In our last paper on Household Thermodynamics, available on the site, we show that insulating our house is 3 times more efficient than generation. The numbers are 8 MWh of generation using our solar array at a cost of $30,000 over 6 years of generation. We have generated between 1.6 and 1.7 MWh in our first three years of operation. We extrapolated to get the 6 year number. We have upgraded the house to make it more heat efficient and modified the interior to minimize heat loss in the winter time. We have invested about $27,000 into these upgrades. Our natural gas usage for winter heating has fallen over the last 6 years so that we are using about 25 MWh less gas. These are real numbers from our gas bills. Conversion factor used is 10.35 kWh for every cubic meter of natural gas used.

    Bottom line since, from the point of view of an energy supplier, a negawatt is the same as a self generated Watt, we got 3 times the bang for the buck with insulation. We are in Toronto. As a bonus our house has been remarkably cooler in this summer’s blistering heat. Insulation is a very important factor in the war on CO2.

    3. We looked very closely at the effects of ambient heat on PV power output. Heat does play a roll in decreasing PV power output. We have a paper on the site looking at that phenomenon. We feel in a heating world, any large scale PV installations in places like deserts, the panels should be de-rated according to age and ambient heat increase over time. As well there have been some interesting nano coatings discovered that greatly increase radiative properties of anything they are used upon. The bottom sides of panels are a good place to put this coating to increase their heat radiation and reduce their internal temperature.

    4. Solar hot water generation is in comparison to PV a huge deal and I’m surprised it is not talked about more. We strongly suspect it costs less than 15-20% per kWh of energy captured when compared to PV. It has slightly higher maintenance that PV.

    5. PV on roof tops has to be the lowest maintenance power generation technology available. Over a 25 year lifetime for a PV installation as compared to a gas powered plant with all the costs involved, INCLUDING EXTERNALITIES … hehe … sorry about shouting but they do get short shrift; the ‘all up’ cost per Watt generated must be less than fossil carbon forms of generation. We’d like to see more research done in this area.

    Enjoy your day.

  11. Bryce says:

    David: Actually, yes. And no. I mean, it’s a toughie.

    In the computer industry, there is a running joke: Say you have a gigantic computing problem to crunch through, one that’s going to take vast banks of computers a decade to accomplish. What’s the fastest way to solve it? By waiting four or five years to get started. This actually works, because computers improve so quickly that, when it comes time to actually build the rig that you’re going to run the computations on, you can buy four times as much computing power for the same price.

    So, if you knew for certain that, two years from now you could buy twice as big of a solar installation with the money you would be spending today, it would be foolish to buy it now. Each dollar you spent would only prevent half as much CO2 as it could further down the road.

    Where it gets tricky is, solar seems to be a more volatile industry than computing. There are lots of small companies that need these early sales to allow them to bring new technologies up to scale. If they don’t make those seemingly suboptimal sales, then you can’t buy the later system at the lower price, because the manufacturer is out of business.