September 15, 2002
Price trends for photovoltaics: Part I

In order to forecast when photovoltaics will become competitive with fossil fuels as an energy source its important to look at historical prices for photovoltaics. I'm going to make posts about renewable energy cost trends as I find the data.

The US Department of Energy is the major funder of US photovoltaics research. In this paper from January 2001 Status and Recent Progress in Photovoltaic Manufacturing in the USA there is data on recent cost trends in photovoltaics from 1992 to 1999:

Module Manufacturing Costs and Capacities PV module costs are usually given in "dollars per watt," with the watt value defined in terms of the module power rating under specific conditions. Figure 1 shows total manufacturing capacity versus average direct costs for modules manufactured by participants in the PVMaT Project. The plot is based on 1999 data from 12 industrial participants, each of which has active production lines. The "average module manufacturing cost" is a weighted average based on the manufacturing capacity of each of these participants. As seen for the 12 manufacturers, PV manufacturing capacity has increased by more than a factor of seven since 1992, from 13.6 to 99.3 megawatts. Additionally, the weighted-average cost for manufacturing PV modules has been reduced by 36%, from $4.23 to $2.73 per peak watt. Projections through 2005 indicate a steady decline, to an average module manufacturing cost of $1.16 per peak watt at just over 865 megawatts of capacity.

Note that the reference to capacity is for manufacturing capacity for making photovoltaic cells. It is not installed capacity of photovoltaic cells. The decline in price from 1992 to the projected price for 2005 is less than a factor of 3. The decline in the price of photovoltaics was much more rapid in its earlier years. Says Greenpeace:

From 1972 to 1992, photovoltaic module costs have dropped one hundred fold.

Also, see the Figure 7.3 here for historical cost trends thru 1994. Cost decline appears to have slowed in percentage terms per year. Note that in figure 7.4 they show the potential for a more rapid decline in photovoltaics costs if thin film photovoltaics turn out to be workable. They comment:

Even sharper module cost reductions can be expected in the case of thin film PV cells, irrespective of the basic semiconductor employed (amorphous silicon, CdTe, CIS, or others). First, this is due to the use of a much smaller amount of semiconductor material and to much lower energy consumption rates. Secondly, thin-film manufacturing techniques (direct deposition) allow the direct manufacturing of 1,000 cm2 integrated solar modules (i.e. a-St) and are particularly well suited for mass production.

You can go here for a report on current capacity of each type of renewable energy source. Click on the Standard Report button for "Operating Capacity (kW) by Technology and Fuel". Note that while hydro (ie hydroelectric dams) provide the largest source of renewable the ranking after that are biomass, geothermal, wind, thermal, and then photovoltaic. Photovoltaic is almost 4 orders of magnitude less than biomass as an energy source and hydro is over 4 times greater an energy source than biomass. Photovoltaics have a long way to go.

To put that into larger perspective, total US generating capacity in 2000 was 825 GW of peak capacity. US photovoltaics capacity was only 75 MW which is less than one hundredth of one percent of the total. The US DOE National Center for Photovoltaics projects:

Our expectation for industry growth is 25% per year a level that should be achievable according to recent market data. At this level of growth, domestic PV capacity will approach 10% of U.S. peak generation by 2030.

Unless the rate of advance in thin film photovoltaics is accelerated we face rather distant prospects for use of photovoltaics as a way to reduce our dependence on Middle Eastern oil.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2002 September 15 06:21 PM  Energy Solar

Philip Shropshire said at September 16, 2002 9:28 PM:

Well, actually, the savior of solar may be Nan! Nan could not only make solar more efficient but a lot cheaper as well. It's also why, as an inveterate leftist, I'm disappointed that the left wants a moratorium on Nan products. Nan is the holy grail....

The other argument that you're missing is economics. If you were to take away the subsidies that go to the older and dirtier fuels (coal an nuclear) and switch them over to alt fuels (plus other inducements: tax credits for conservation and solar, etc., which is working very well in Germany. They're creating a new industry, getting rid of nuclear and creating cleaner production to boot...!)

Please check out these links and do you have a name (?):

And here's a story about how nan could increase the use of our current oil reserves:

And here's something about how wind is getting mor efficient...actually the future of alt fuels is wind, not solar, at least until the assemblers come online...

Philip Shropshire

Randall Parker said at September 18, 2002 10:25 AM:


You will find my name at the bottom of very post.

As for subsidies for fossil fuel use: Saudi and other Gulf state oil production costs are just a few dollars a barrel. The price of oil could drop to a third or a quarter of the current world market price and the Gulf state producers could still make a profit on production.

Nuclear plants that already exist are sunken costs. No subsidy is needed for their operation. Their operating cost per kwh produced is lower than that of fossil fuel-based electricity.

Yes, I'm aware of the stuff going on in wind energy tech. I am intending to explore price trends in other energy sources in future posts as time permits.

Yes, I agree that nanotechnology will radically reduce costs. Its why I'm not worried about global warming. Go out 30 or 40 years and its hard to see why nanotech will not make photovoltaics and other alternative energy sources orders of magnitude cheaper. I don't think the human race will need fossil fuel at all within 50 years max.

Kenneth Huck said at December 13, 2003 4:12 PM:

Established nuclear powerplants have a huge subsidy in the US. The operators of nuclear plants have an astoundingly low cap on the amount of liability that they will pay when a plant fails. I believe that law is called the Price Anderson Act and it makes the government us responsible for nuclear system failures.

JESUS LAFOSA Gralo Manager said at March 7, 2005 9:18 AM:

dear sirs
Please quotation and information your photovoltaic modules, all sizes and kinds
we can buy for instance 2000 plates 150 watts or more power.


P Fabra i Puig, 341, Local 3.
08031 Barcelona
Tel.: 0034 934 297 199
Fax: 0034 934 294 723
Web: U R L

Photovoltaics said at October 22, 2009 12:16 PM:

We may all be relying on photovoltaic energy in the future, we need to spread the message loud and clear.

zetar said at October 6, 2013 4:30 AM:

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The mold basically consists of a sprue, a runner, a cavity gate, and a cavity. The sprue is the channel located in the stationary platen that transports the melt from the plasticator nozzle to the runner. In turn, melt flows through the runner and gate and into the cavity. With a single-cavity mold, usually no runner is used, so melt goes from the sprue to the gate.
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