October 21, 2007
GE Engineer Sees Competitive Photovoltaics In Under 10 Years

Government incentives in Germany and Japan have created a rapid increase in demand for photovoltaics.

Once the choice only of idealists who put the environment before economics, production of solar panels will double both next year and in 2009, according to U.S. investment bank Jefferies Group Inc, driven by government support especially in Germany and Japan.

A high ranking engineer at General Electric says in some parts of the United States photovoltaics will become cost competitive by 2015.

"At that point you can expect pretty much unbounded growth," General Electric Co's Chief Engineer Jim Lyons told the Jefferies conference in London on Thursday, referring to price parity in sunny parts of the United States by around 2015.

"The solar industry will eventually be bigger than wind."

Solar energy will become bigger than wind for a few reasons. First off, there is more energy outside in the form of photon torpedoes (sorry, couldn't resist) than in the form of air flowing. Wind is just one side effect of heating caused by those photons showering down on the planet. Second, while photovoltaic materials are currently rather expensive they have much greater potential to become dirt cheap than wind towers do. Third, photovoltaic installations hit fewer obstacles. Your neighbors are less likely to mind photovoltaics on your roof (especially when future photovoltaic materials are made to look like roof tiles) than they are a tower sticking up out of our yard 100 feet and making noise as the wind spins the blades.

Here's an example of approaches that hold the potential to make photovoltaics very cheap.

Researchers at Harvard University have made solar cells that are a small fraction of the width of a human hair. The cells, each made from a single nanowire just 300 nanometers wide, could be useful for powering tiny sensors or robots for environmental monitoring or military applications. What's more, the basic design of the solar cells could be useful in large-scale power production, potentially lowering the cost of generating electricity from the sun.

We do not face a general energy shortage. We face a liquid fuels shortage. Solar is going to join wind and nuclear as non-fossil fuels sources of electricity that could replace most of the fossil fuels now used to generate electricity.

Given cheap, dependable, and high energy density batteries we could shift most transportation to electricity and most electric generation to non-fossil fuels energy sources. That is the path we need to follow to the post Peak Oil era.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 October 21 09:28 PM  Energy Solar


Comments
David Govett said at October 21, 2007 10:20 PM:

For decades I've read that if solar cells become 15% or so more efficient, they will be economically competitive. I'm still waiting. Saudi Arabia could drop oil prices by half overnight, making solar cells uncompetitive once again. It's economic warfare seeking to keep us addicted while depleting our wallets.

Perry E. Metzger said at October 22, 2007 6:46 AM:

Mr. Govett was reading nonsense. Commercial cells at 22% efficiency have been available for quite a while now.

The issue is not the percentage of efficiency but production costs, which have been falling on an exponential curve for years. A few decades ago, cells cost $600 per watt, and now cost about $2 or less per watt to make (though a shortage makes the consumer price much higher.) The price is continuing to drop exponentially.

Saudi Arabia is not in control of oil prices -- they could not substantially increase production, so they could not drop oil prices by 10%, let alone 50%. However, oil prices certainly will drop when solar becomes a major source of power, because demand will drop, and thus the price of oil will go down. This will not stop solar in its tracks, it will only intensify competition.

Julian Morrison said at October 22, 2007 8:13 AM:

One thing you can do with solar, that you can't do with almost anything else, is take it up into space and scale it out, and out, and out...

I wonder if any asteroids are made of materials suitable to being reprocessed into solar panels?

David Govett said at October 22, 2007 8:37 AM:

I said 15% MORE efficient, not 15% efficient. Read more carefully before you dump on one.

Nick said at October 22, 2007 9:10 AM:

"Given cheap, dependable, and high energy density batteries we could shift most transportation to electricity and most electric generation to non-fossil fuels energy sources. "

Well, battery improvements will always help, but batteries are good enough now.

PHEV's, like the Chevy Volt, looks on track to be a no-compromise vehicle on every parameter including price, and it will reduce liquid fuel consumption by 75-99%, depending on your driving pattern.

Have you looked at Firefly batteries? They're a couple of years behind A123systems, and other new-gen li-ion's, but they look much less expensive, and almost as good. They promise that it will be in Husqvarna equipment by the end of the year, and commercial trucks by next summer. Looks real.

Paul Dietz said at October 22, 2007 11:22 AM:

However, oil prices certainly will drop when solar becomes a major source of power, because demand will drop, and thus the price of oil will go down.

Nonsense. Oil and electricity are substantially disjoint markets. Lack of electricity, or cost of electricity, is not what is holding back electrification of transporation.

aa2 said at October 22, 2007 12:53 PM:

I'll check out Firefly Nick... I've been following the Volt for awhile now, and am extremely impressed with A123's technology. So far to me A123 looks like the breakthrough we needed to move to at least plug in hybrid cars. And the 75-99% drop.. 75% will dramatically lower demand for oil.. but it will take some time to get installed base.

I've been saying for a number of years that I'm bullish on oil until the late teens.. but after that in the 2020's I see the demand side falling. Of course I don't expect oil price to fall down much even then, as its still a valuable resource for many applications.

Nick said at October 22, 2007 3:18 PM:

Paul,

"Oil and electricity are substantially disjoint markets. Lack of electricity, or cost of electricity, is not what is holding back electrification of transporation."

True, but long-distance electric transportation would be helped if PV becomes truly cheap, high-efficiency (40%+) and capable of being integrated into vehicle bodies.

I'm especially intrigued by the potential for shipping: it uses a fair amount of oil (bunker fuel could be turned into other products), and these container ships have a lot of surface area and are out in the sun all day, every day.

Long haul trucking would benefit greatly. PHEV's would too. It might even help airliners a little (perhaps 5% of energy consumption).

Aa,

"it will take some time to get installed base"

True, though not quite as long as some think: vehicles less than 6 years old account for 50% of miles driven.

"I don't expect oil price to fall down much even then"

I'd be surprised if demand could be cut sufficiently to get ahead of depletion, but IF it can, oil prices could plummet: it doesn't take much of a surplus to confuse OPEC.

Julian Morrison said at October 22, 2007 3:48 PM:

PHEVs and pure EVs are likely to *raise* the price of oil, by the following mechanism:

1. Suppose they only use a quarter as much gas.

2. Three quarters of gas stations close.

3. The oil industry consolidates, becoming a typical low-margin monopoly.

4. Fixed costs aren't substantially changed.

5. Economies of scale are reduced.

6. The customer picks up all the costs.

7. Chances are he now looks favorably at pure EVs, and every defection from the gasoline economy puts more strain on what remains.

PHEVs may not use much liquid fuel, but they're abstract sculpture without that little. Their demand is "inelastic". They hold the driver hostage.

I think the car-gasoline industry will respond in a very nonlinear way to shrinking demand. I don't think they can get small gracefully. I think the collapse will snowball quite surprisingly quickly, such that there are nearly-new cars being trashed, because nobody sells liquid fuel.

Brock said at October 22, 2007 4:55 PM:

Julian: Actually, the installed base of gasoline buring cars is a good reason why the oil companies won't collapse over-night. There will probably be a 10-year turnover period in the modern (wealthy) nations, and an even longer one in developing nations (who cannot afford to replace cars as quickly). Whether that will be enough to let them "downsize gracefully" by simply letting old processing plants expire without being replaced, I cannot say. One mitigating factor is that they will have reduced income but also reduced investment in future capacity costs, so it may balance out.

But if it's not graceful, expect the vulture funds in New York and London to pick up the pieces at discount prices and run them profitably at the lower cost of ownership. Industry-wide restructuring isn't pretty, but it can be done.

Randall Parker said at October 22, 2007 6:26 PM:

Paul Dietz is correct. The price of oil is not very connected to the price of electricity. Oil has long been too expensive to use to generate electricity in the vast bulk of the United States.

Once have excellent vehicle batteries then and only then can electric generation sources directly compete against oil. At that point coal, nuclear, wind, and solar will all compete with oil to power vehicles. I am looking forward to that day and hope that the great batteries come before the world decline in oil production.

Nick,

If the batteries really were ready right now I could go convert my car to battery power with a decent range and at a price that isn't ridiculous. Show me how that is possible.

Maybe batteries will be ready a few years from now. But they are not ready right now.

Julian Morrison,

I recently decided against writing a post about the US military's recent report on space solar because it had major caveats like it assumes some big drop in launch costs. By the time solar is cheap enough for space it will be much cheaper for down here on Earth.

Brock,

If we are hitting peak oil and if the price of oil is headed toward $120, $140, $160 per barrel and if we are about to get affordable batteries for cars then I could see an after market industry developing to convert big old cars to run on electric power. In that case the migration to electric could happen a lot faster. But such an accelerated migration requires both the high prices and breakthroughs in batteries.

Mind you, we might see both those events happening in the next few years. I find the evidence presented by the Peak Oil folks highly compelling about future oil production. Though I find some of their doomster arguments about the consequences less persuasive.

Julian Morrison said at October 22, 2007 7:50 PM:

Brock: you miss my point. The utility of gasoline cars is tied in an unstable feedback loop with the availability of gasoline. They *can't run* without gas, and the gas stations *can't run* without thirsty cars. That acts as a multiplier so any shrinkage in the gas car fleet leads to an out-of-proportion drop in the utility of gas cars, and that drives more of them out of use, and so on. I expect it to surprise people. Governments will probably try to nationalize and run the whole infrastructure, to no avail.

Randall: you aren't thinking in space scale. Throwing solar up the well is expensive (which is why I mentioned asteroids - they could be cheaper), but the potential for profit is huge. There's just so much sun up there. We could float tens of thousands of square kilometers of solar array (ultra thin, it doesn't have to support its own weight, so that's not actually much material) and not soak up a single percent. Beam that all back to earth and you would change the world. By the "law of the minimum", so many of our technologies are right now limited by the availability of energy. Suddenly, they wouldn't be.

aa2 said at October 22, 2007 10:34 PM:

Nick commented; "True, though not quite as long as some think: vehicles less than 6 years old account for 50% of miles driven."

Wow I didn't know that, thanks for that info!!

Nick said at October 23, 2007 8:37 AM:

"2. Three quarters of gas stations close...4. Fixed costs aren't substantially changed."

You've got a point about overhead rising a bit, but I don't see a dramatic increase percentage-wise. For instance, Number 2 is an example of fixed costs dropping.

"PHEVs may not use much liquid fuel, but they're abstract sculpture without that little. "

Not really. They would become short-range EV's. Realistically, there will always be some gas, even at higher prices, and that will provide extremely valuable backup, even if it's only used twice per year. That's why I think PHEV's will be around for a very long time, with batteries gradually growing in size.


Nick said at October 23, 2007 9:13 AM:

"If the batteries really were ready right now I could go convert my car to battery power with a decent range and at a price that isn't ridiculous. Show me how that is possible."

Actually, you can. Deep discharge lead-acid batteries are only $65/KWH, so you could put 15KWH (as planned for the Volt) in a PHEV-40 for only about $1,000. That's cost-effective at $1.75/gallon, assuming 400 cycle life and 80% depth of discharge ($65/(400 x .8)x .25kwh/mile= $.05/mile. $.05/mile battery cost + $.10kwh/mile x .25kwh/mile = $.075/mile, less than $1.75/22 mpg (US fleet average).

Now, A123systems (widely available now) are roughly 10x as expensive (though I'd estimate that will drop by 50% in 3 years), and have 10x the cycle life. If you have a very high cycle life application, like a taxi, that would also be cost-effective right now. In 3 years I expect it to be cost effective in the Volt.

Firefly, 2x as expensive and with 4x the cycle life (and much lower weight), appears to be available now to Husqvarna, and to the DOD and truck manufacturers middle of next year.

Now, you might ask: why GM won't use lead-acid, as they did in the EV-1, which had a range of 60 miles? The answer: PR. GM wants bragging rights to tech leadership. Close behind is a better reason: li-ion will be cost-effective very soon, and it has many advantages, including size, weight and durability for the life of the vehicle.

Garson O'Toole said at October 23, 2007 12:33 PM:

Randall Parker states that “Government incentives in Germany and Japan have created a rapid increase in demand for photovoltaics.” Some readers of this blog may be surprised by the magnitude of the incentives offered. Germany has a feed-in tariff of about $0.80 per kWh for solar energy. That means that German utility companies must pay 80 cents per kWh to purchase electricity generated by solar panels. The size of the German feed-in tariff is reported in an article entitled Mixed Reviews for Ontario's Feed-in Tariff at the website RenewableEnergyAccess.com. The article contains complaints that Ontario solar feed-in tariff of $0.42 per kWh is inadequate. For contrast and comparison, I am located in the U.S. and I pay $0.11 per kWh to my electrical utility.

Here is what the Renewable Energy website says about feed-in tariffs: “Often hailed as the best and fastest way to deploy a large amount of renewable energy, a FIT sets a price per kilowatt-hour (kWh) of generated renewable energy that is high enough to properly compensate the generator and make a project profitable. Utilities are then obligated to purchase renewable energy at that set price.”

TTT said at October 23, 2007 5:18 PM:

Wasn't there some plan to put a giant mirror array in orbit, in order to reflect sunlight over a couple of major cities at night (Tokyo, New York)?

This is not photovoltaics, just a plain old mirror array. The benefit would be that these cities would still have 'twilight' level of brightness for some periods of night, thus making life more pleasant, reducing crime, etc.

It might be an inexpensive way to yield a lot of benefits to a couple of big population centers.

Nick said at October 23, 2007 6:04 PM:

"Germany has a feed-in tariff of about $0.80 per kWh for solar energy. "

I think that's distorted by the low dollar. I think that's really about $.50/kwh.

Randall Parker said at October 23, 2007 6:44 PM:

Garson O'Toole,

Germany is currently installing over half the new photovoltaic panels now getting installed. That is mind boggling for a country so far north. It takes a huge subsidy to make that happen.

Germany's policy is a pretty dumb way to reduce fossil fuels usage. They could subsidize diesel hybrids or electric cars or spend money making buildings more efficient.

Nick,

How do you know the $65 per kwh for deep discharge lead acid batteries?

How much does the 15 kwh of lead acid batteries weigh?

I also would like to know how much electric motors cost. Any idea? Suppose the goal is to convert existing vehicles to pure electric. How high would the price of gasoline have to get to make doing that worthwhile?

Randall Parker said at October 23, 2007 6:54 PM:

Nick,

This part of your calculation is confusing to me:

$.05/mile battery cost + $.10kwh/mile x .25kwh/mile = $.075/mile

Did you really mean to put mile in the denominator for the $.10kwh? Are you trying to multiply $.10/kwh times .25kwh/mile?

Also, I would expect a car that does .25kwh/mile to get better than 22 mpg.

Garson O'Toole said at October 24, 2007 6:41 AM:

Nick, it is true that the exchange rate between the dollar and the euro has shifted over time. The website SolarBuzz has information about the German feed-in tariffs. Here is an excerpt:

The "Feed-in Law" in Germany permits customers to receive preferential tariffs for solar generated electricity depending on the nature and size of the installation. Under the new tariff structure introduced in 2004, the base level of compensation for ground-mounted systems can be up to 45.7 euro cents/kWh. PV installations on buildings receive higher rates of up to 57.4 euro cents/kWh. The Feed-in Law requires that the tariff paid for solar electricity be reduced by 5% per year, and by 6.5% per annum for ground-mounted systems.
This means that the feed-in tariff for solar photovoltaic systems on buildings was initially set at 57.4 euro cents/kWh which is 81.9 cents/kWh in U.S. currency by the current exchange rate. This tariff is supposed to decrease each year apparently. For comparison it would be useful to know how much electricity costs residential customers now in various German locales.

Nick said at October 24, 2007 10:02 PM:

"Are you trying to multiply $.10/kwh times .25kwh/mile?"

Uh, yeah.

"Also, I would expect a car that does .25kwh/mile to get better than 22 mpg. "

Sure. This is a comparison of an efficient PHEV vs the US fleet average.

Garson,

"the feed-in tariff for solar photovoltaic systems on buildings was initially set at 57.4 euro cents/kWh which is 81.9 cents/kWh in U.S. currency by the current exchange rate. This tariff is supposed to decrease each year apparently."

57.4 Euro cents, reduced by 5% 3 times, is about 50 euro cents. The Euro is worth about a dollar, based on purchasing power.

Nick said at October 25, 2007 8:05 AM:

"How do you know the $65 per kwh for deep discharge lead acid batteries?"

The old standby is the Trojan T-105 at 1.35 KWH, which IIRC you can get for $80. There are competitors who claim somewhat better price/performance.

"How much does the 15 kwh of lead acid batteries weigh?"

45 lbs per KWH, or 610 lbs for 10 T-105's.

"I also would like to know how much electric motors cost. Any idea? Suppose the goal is to convert existing vehicles to pure electric."

I'm not sure of the best way to convert an existing vehicle. I suspect that in-wheel motors might give you an elegant way to create a retrofit hybrid. That's probably substantially more expensive, but installation cost would be much less.

"How high would the price of gasoline have to get to make doing that worthwhile?"

A PHEV is more cost-effective. The additional batteries for a pure EV get used much less. The marginal weight is more of a problem for lead-acid, and the marginal cost is more of a problem for li-ion. That's why Tesla went with conventional li-ion: it's the most energy-dense. The actual cost-analysis would depend heavily on your driving pattern: the % of your driving within each "tranche" of battery supply.

It's interesting to note that EV's are less cost-effective in Europe due to much lower miles/vehicle/year.

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