March 06, 2010
Process To Cut Solar Cost 80%?

It is about time for a disruptive technology for energy production.

A new manufacturing process could cut the cost of making crystalline silicon wafers for solar cells by 80 percent. The process is being developed by Lexington, MA-based 1366 Technologies, which this week showed off the first solar cells made this way. The technology is key to the company's plan to make solar power cheaper than the electricity generated from coal within 10 years.

Enough players are going at the problem of how to make solar power way cheaper that I expect some group to do it sooner or later. The question is when. This year?

A lot of scientists (e.g. MIT prof Emanuel Sachs who founded 1366 Technologies) obviously think the big disruptive advances are possible or they wouldn't be trying so hard and making such big promises for the future. I expect they understand the physics well enough to know that much cheaper solar PV is possible.

Granted cheap solar or cheap wind (if wind power costs can fall further) will still be problematic due to unreliability. But if batteries for electric cars become cheap enough then cars will become a big source of electric power demand that for the most part won't be time sensitive. People will be able to recharge their cars at night while asleep (and in most areas wind blows stronger at night). After coming home from work most cars sit for over 12 hours. The wind just has to blow sometime during that long period. Similarly, cars parked at work will be able to recharge during the day when the sun is shining.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2010 March 06 05:09 PM  Energy Solar

Fat Man said at March 6, 2010 5:53 PM:

If the panels were free, solar power would still be too expensive. The cost of mounting them, connecting them, turning the raw out put into something usable, and either storing power or continuing to use grid power will make solar power expensive and uncompetitive -- even if the cells are free.

Wolf-Dog said at March 6, 2010 5:57 PM:

As far as batteries are concerned, Planar Energy's solid state batteries have been verified by the University of Central Florida. 3 times the energy density of current lithium-ion batteries at half the cost.

But the point is that because there is significant unemployment among scientists and engineers, and because there is a big market for electric cars and batteries, we now have a big race to find new batteries and energy sources. The sleeping giant is waking up, as an unintended consequence of 9/11.

Wolf-Dog said at March 6, 2010 6:50 PM:

There is also a gold rush to develop new batteries...

University of Central Florida verified that Planar Energy's solid state batteries are realistic. It is expected that these new batteries will have 3 times the energy density of the current lithium-ion batteries at half the cost,.

Lyle said at March 6, 2010 7:27 PM:

Fat Man, as justification you link to a post where you assert the same thing? Your opinion isn't really justification, and your opinion is also not accurate.

Generally, the break even point for solar installation is 10-15 years depending on your energy costs.

Where I am in Hawai'i (where electricity is really expensive), it's closer to 8-10 (including the installation costs) after the state and federal tax credits. (Math based on $200/month bills going to $50/month over 10 years = ~18,000 in savings. Right now installation costs + panels comes to about ~30,000 for a _really_ good system. If you install over two years, the tax credits come to at least 10k of that cost.) See and

If you're going to make assertions, at least link to some evidence.

Instead, you link to an article that discussed solar in terms of Britain's cloudy climate.

The truth is that Solar isn't for everywhere, but it is definitely cost-effective in some places.

Brian said at March 6, 2010 7:27 PM:

Solar is still interesting. There are a number of ways to further improve cost efficiency. roofing tiles, integrated inverters, larger scale panels better integrated into the structure. They can provide a benefit in warm climates when air conditioning is in high demand. I will agree that perhaps hydro and natural gas deserve better compensation if we progress down this road. They are very effective at stepping in when some other producer has lost capacity.

Fat Man, If Solar were free. I would carefully consider how much power I use during strong sunlight and try to shift my load. Presenting the grid with what is probably a net decrease. Not by storage, but rather by scheduling. This is dependent on the regulatory structure however, and that political morass could prove a real challenge.

My main concern is generating as many Watt/Hours as possible with the minimum cost, after making a best-guess at externalities. Nuclear and coal just don't do a very good job of ramping up and down very quickly. Coal has significant concerns beyond it's carbon output. For that matter, while I'm a huge hydro fan. I also make no allusions that grinding salmon in turbines is good for the species or the fishing industry.

I don't see us cracking this one in the coming decade, but developing as many options as we can will help. If we can make significant strides with storage, and scheduling or variable pricing, it just might push the best technologies forward. My greatest fear is that we will be dependent on foreign markets for critical infrastructure during a crisis, the oil embargo of the 1970s, $100/bl oil a couple years ago didn't help the financial situation (world wide), and peak oil could very well make that look like child's play unless we have other options.

To summarize I see Solar, Wind and most of the developing energy sources as valuable tools, even if they remain niche markets today. They are likely more valuable than the appear. The scheduling technology (smart grid, and/or time based pricing) that would make that value evident is well within reach.

Andrew Guenthner said at March 6, 2010 9:00 PM:

Based on my experience as an actual owner of a residential PV system, with performance and payback tracked monthly, I'd say for your typical Californian in an inland location, an 80% reduction from average crystalline silicon panel prices would get you just to feasibility (~25 year payback) provided that the government helped to ensure the availability of low-interest rate loans (in lieu of an actual tax credit or cash back). Or, if you had at least $10k to "invest" in it, you could get payback in a little under 20 years. I'd be happy to post the gory details if anyone wants to see them.

Under these conditions, leasing might make sense for a significant number of people. If you were one of the many households that goes well into Tier 3 rates (in California's system where the rates go up with the more you use) now at 21 cents/kWh (and likely rising), then you could realistically be offered a somewhat lower and fixed rate of perhaps 18 cents/kWh on leased panels, even with minimal help to the leasing agents from the government or the utilities (i.e. even without renewable electricity mandates). The savings offered aren't that great, a few dollars per month, and many people won't have the rooftop space needed, but at least it's profitable without counting on future electricity rate increases.

The best option, though, would still be to let the utilities or large companies build the systems (as is happening with thin film panels now) and tie them to the grid, since there would be economy of scale and most people, in my opinion, would find battery back-up to be too much of a hassle (not to mention that it makes the system more expensive). The systems could be widely distributed to minimize losses through the grid and the vulnerabilities of centralized power generation.

Of course, the main unanswered question is "80% cheaper than what?". Purchased crystalline silicon still is over $4/peak watt on average (though some products are now much cheaper). Given what is written about 1366 technologies, 80 cents per peak watt would be believable, but if you believe that, why not then believe First Solar when they say they will be cheaper than that in a couple of years based only on refining and scaling up existing mass-produced thin film technology? Maybe, as Randall implies, the good news here is mainly that competition for cheap PV is heating up.

pond said at March 7, 2010 5:46 AM:

The cost of silicon is only a part of the cost of a panel; the cost of a panel, as noted in other comments here, is only part of an installation. What's needed is reduction in every part. Lowering the cost of the most expensive part, the silicon, is a great step. We also need to package the silicon with micro-inverters and maybe lenses/mirrors, and if we could build a package that also included water to cool the cells, we'd co-generate hot water.

But beyond the hot-water co-generation, what we need is a panel that has the micro-inverters, outputs AC, and you can just lean up against the side of your house and plug in. Because as stated, installation costs probably are greater than the silicon cost for any individual setup.

Nevertheless, the progress continues. We're going to need it as China and India outbid us for available exported oil.

Randall Parker said at March 7, 2010 11:47 AM:


I'm with you on the oil out-bidding. We are in a recession with unemployment about 10% and yet oil went back over $80 per barrel last week. China is now building more cars than the United States and their car production is going to double and double again. We need great batteries and cheap PV to run electric cars.

I think PV integrated into tiles might be the solution. Why install a roof and then install PV?

Wolf Dog,

The news about Planar's battery is encouraging. I see us in a race between the rising price of oil and the development of technologies to replace oil for transportation and materials.

Fat Man said at March 7, 2010 9:31 PM:

Lyle I had about 5 comments on the thread. Read all of them. Where I live, and where a majority of Americans live, in the eastern third of the US. Solar is not conceivably economic.

"Generally, the break even point for solar installation is 10-15 years depending on your energy costs."

If it takes 10 to 15 years it can't work. Nothing will stay in place and work that long without major repairs or replacement. If it doesn't pay off until then, it is not worth the initial investment.

"Where I am in Hawai'i (where electricity is really expensive), it's closer to 8-10 (including the installation costs) after the state and federal tax credits."

You expect sympathy? You live in paradise. Beyond that, tax credits, feed in tariffs, and other subsidies cannot economically justify solar as a policy for the whole country. Transfer payments make the transferee feel better, but they don't change the underlying cost to the whole economy. Besides the government is broke and those subsidies will be on the chopping block.

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