Mountain View company improves upon solar panel

November 20, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
Can electricity from solar panels ever become as cheap as electricity from fossil fuels? One Bay Area company is convinced that it can -- even without subsidies. This week, it broke a solar energy record. Richard Hart reports on the Drive to Discover cheap solar.

In Mountain View this week, workers are unloading and assembling a pilot plant to manufacture the most efficient commercial photovoltaic solar panel yet. It turns almost one-third of the sun's energy into electricity, a new record.

"But that barrier, the theoretical limit, seems to keep increasing over time," observes Chris Norris. "No, I don't think we can get 100 percent, but there's quite a bit of evidence you could get to near 50 percent."

Norris is CEO of Alta Devices, developer of solar semiconductors. He points out that current solar power plants generate electricity at a cost of 20 cents per kilowatt hour; a new nuclear plant would do it for 15 cents, and gas and coal for 10.

"The next generation of solar is actually capable of being below 10 cents per kilowatt hour," Norris said. "Very competitive with all of the mainstream, and other, sources of energy."

Paradoxically, Alta's nano-material is relatively expensive, super-thin film gallium arsenide.

Some people, such as researchers at UC Berkeley, maintain that the solution is cells made from abundant super-cheap materials. Norris counters that cheap material means larger panels, and larger panels mean larger power plants that nullify any savings in material.

"Most of the costs are the fixed plant costs, not the cost of the semiconductor material," Norris said. "Decreasing the efficiency by half to reduce the cost of the semiconductor material, just causes you to expand the most expensive part of the solar plant, which is all the steel and the wire and the labor to put it together."

In other words, energy density at the panel can enable cheaper solar all the way from sun to socket.

The marketplace is already doing its part to bring down costs, with demand for solar panels doubling every year. A technology breakthrough like this one is just an added ray of home.

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LINKS:

Solar Efficiency Record Broken

Alta Devices Technology


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