Sunlight is free, but harnessing that radiant heat energy and converting it into usable solar power costs a pretty penny.
Materials handling and manufacturing, production efficiency and installation all drive up the price of photovoltaic solar array systems, those sun-catching panels installed on roofs. Once in place, the amount of sunlight and array performance will determine how much of a return on investment solar power systems generate.
But while the up-front expenses starting around $5,000 for at-home installation are a big, expensive pill for some people to swallow, the long-term benefits of photovoltaic solar power systems are worthwhile.
“Where you have good (sunlight) and access to financing and a combination of federal and state incentives, you have a number of markets around the country that are very vibrant, and it’s very cost-effective with financial paybacks in the order of five and 10 years,” said Robert Margolis, a senior energy analyst at National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).
Solar power prices have actually fallen significantly in recent years, thanks to developments on the production end as well as component design, which has edged away from customization and moved toward standardized solar power kits.
As a testament to this progress, the California Energy Commission recently calculated the average cost of installing a commercial solar power system at $4.85 per watt, which represents a roughly 50 percent reduction from only five years ago.
A Range of Innovation
Although other types of cutting-edge solar power systems, including concentrated photovoltaics and solar thermal power, hold particular advantages, technology innovations for photovoltaic array systems are also contributing to a bright future for solar energy in the United States.
“One of the exciting things about solar energy … is there’s been so much change and advancement in the technology in the past couple of years, and there’s so much more coming in the pipeline that I think it hasn’t really entered the consciousness of the mainstream utilities at the level that it’s going to really come on,” Margolis told Discovery News.
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For instance, Margolis points to the evolution of crystalline silicon solar cells, the building blocks of photovoltaic panels, into second generation thin-film solar cells.
These thin-film cells made of cadmium-telluride and other materials not only outperform their predecessors but also cost less.
Jeffrey Grossman, an engineer with Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has also developed a 3-D solar cell model that could capture up to two and a half times more sunlight than flat panel photovoltaics arrays.
Inspired by the light-loving shape of trees, Grossman generated the most efficient 3-D solar cell shapes possible using genetic algorithms that apply natural selection principles to mathematics.
The 3-D shapes eliminate the need for the panels to tilt to follow the sun’s path, resulting in a relatively constant power input throughout the day.
Lower Cost and Higher Efficiencies
“While it’s encouraging that solar cell costs are lowering and their efficiencies increasing, the truth is that the pressing challenge of producing electricity renewably calls for game-changing leaps forward as opposed to our current path of incremental advances,” Grossman said.
Ideas like Grossman’s could propel the solar power industry forward even faster, especially as support for the alternative energy is buoyed by federal and state tax breaks and renewable portfolio standards requiring specific amounts of energy generated by a state to come from renewable resources.
But ultimately, solar power has to become more cost-competitive with coal and other fossil fuels in order to become a major player in the energy sector.
“Coal today is very cheap, like 4 or 5 cents a kilowatt-hour in wholesome prices, or even less in some places,” Margolis with NREL said. “But are we going to go on forever having really cheap coal and not addressing climate and other pollutant issues that are still problem for coal?”
In solar power hot spots like California, solar power costs at least twice as much, around 12 to 14 cents per kilowatt hour.
Paying that extra money today, however, could serve as a crucial investment to protect our environmental future.
“The sun provides to the Earth that entire 3 trillion barrels worth of oil energy in just two days,” Grossman said. “And yet, tapping into this enormous power to generate electricity is the least utilized renewable energy resource today.”
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