Breakthrough at Stanford could reduce cost of solar power

August 5, 2010 6:56:18 PM PDT
San Jose is still basking in the glow of state recognition that it's the largest installer of solar power. Thursday it added another company to its list. There was a breakthrough at Stanford that could make solar more affordable.

There was a ceremonial flipping of the switch to more solar power in Silicon Valley. Power Integrations in South San Jose installed 2,500 solar panels; the system will save $180,000 on the company's electric bill every year.

"We will get back our investment which is $3.6 million in just 12 years," said Balu Balakrishnan, the president and CEO of Power Integrations.

For now, federal tax credits and state rebates are the driving forces behind solar installation. Without them, the system would take twice as long to pay for itself.

The government says incentives to accelerate solar use are essential because of the hidden costs of oil dependency.

"If you factored in all the costs for the United States, keeping the shipping lanes open for the oil, the cost of cleaning up the Gulf and on and on, it does put that cost differential a little bit in perspective," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose.

The public and private sectors are also investing in research and development to bring down the cost of solar power.

Just this week engineers at Stanford University announced a breakthrough in transforming the sun's heat into energy. The technology could ultimately make solar power production twice as efficient and potentially cheap enough to compete with oil.

"It's going to come down. It is coming down and will continue to decrease," said Alan Meier, Ph.D., from the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.

At this particular solar dedication there was some irony. The company, Power Integrations creates eco chips to make everyday products more energy efficient. Art Rosenfeld, Ph.D., served for a decade on the California Energy Commission and says the savings of solar do not come close to the impact this company and others are making through energy efficiencies.

"That's a savings of $1 trillion a year every year. The solar contributions is in the hundreds of millions," says Rosenfeld.

Rosenfeld says solar supporters are betting the technology improves, and he says it's a good bet.

By the way, U.C. Berkeley physicist Richard Muller has done a cost comparison of various types of power. Coal is by far the cheapest at 1 cent per kilowatt hour, natural gas is at 9 cents, solar is in the middle range at 10 to 15 cents, and gasoline is 27 cents.

If you could convert the power of an AAA battery into that much electricity, it would cost $1,000; a car battery would cost $4. That's from Muller's book "Physics for Future Presidents."


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