January 30, 2007 9:00 PM PST

Shining a light on solar-power costs

Solar technology specialist HelioVolt is teaming up with Exeltech to tackle one of the biggest obstacles to the proliferation of solar power: manual labor.

The companies plan to develop modular solar panels and other products to reduce the costs involved in installing solar energy systems. Some of the products will be solar panels that can be integrated into the conventional solar panel frames, while others will be construction materials that have energy-generating technology built in--roof tiles with integrated solar cells, for example.

Installation is one of the major problems with solar energy. The electricity generated by solar panels is free, but solar systems are not: typically it takes about eight years of free electricity before a consumer breaks even. The solar industry wants to reduce the break-even point to about four years.

The industry spends millions in R&D every year to come up with solar cells that can convert more of the sun's energy into electricity or reduce the cost of producing solar cells.

These systems, however, mostly get installed the old-fashioned way: contractors hoist panels onto the roof and drill and screw them into place. About half of the cost of a solar system goes to the inverter (a device that converts the direct current from the solar panel into alternating current) and to installation, said John Langdon, vice president of marketing at HelioVolt. Installation can even take up half of the budget.

The new products "will reduce the cost of the inverter and the install," he said. "It makes it easier to install."

Some companies have already begun moving in that direction. Late last year, SunPower, which makes highly efficient silicon solar cells, bought PowerLight, which makes a roof tile with embedded solar cells. Right now, the PowerLight solar roof tiles cost more than regular solar power systems, but the installation is less and it gets absorbed into the price of a new home. A few developers in California have started putting the tiles into new homes. The roof tile systems are also less obtrusive than the more conventional solar frames.

HelioVolt specializes in CIGS (copper indium gallium selenide) solar cells. CIGS is not as efficient as silicon for converting sunlight to electricity, but the solar cells and panels that use it are expected to cost less because the active CIGS ingredients can be sprayed onto polymer sheets or incorporated into window coatings or cement. Silicon solar panels emerge from a complex manufacturing process that's similar to the one used to make computer chips.

The catch? No one mass-produces CIGS yet. Miasole is expected to announce production later this year, according to Dave Edwards, an analyst at ThinkEquity Partners. HelioVolt won't mass- produce CIGS cells until 2008.

See more CNET content tagged:
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4 comments

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HelioVolt has to make a Product!
This story is a combination of "dreams" at this point in time. I think HelioVolt has great technology but is not close to manufacturing GIGS PV panels yet.
Reducing the labor cost of PV systems is important but far less important than having a saleable and market ready product.
FOCUS! Get the CIGS/PV product to market!!!
Posted by StanJasek (11 comments )
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Find a more practical use for solar panels
One way to make solar cheaper is to forget the invertor completely
and focus effort to use solar direct current for hot water heaters.
The hot water could also serve to heat homes in winter. It would
not produce electricity for appliances, but it would cut the price for
utilities. The reduced costs of hot water and savings from a
furnace might cut enough expenses for an earlier break-even date.
Posted by Battleshipagincourt (14 comments )
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Not a good idea at all.

Low grade heat such as hot water and space heating is far more efficiently obtained from thermal collectors (e.g. circulated hot water panels) ant not P.V.

The price of inverters will drop sharply with volume production. Right now they are very much over-priced for the components they contain, all of which are basically commodity items.
Posted by Mole2008 (1 comment )
Link Flag
Good advice on the comments section.

The question I have is the best voltage level to use, if we design our home to use DC as generated by the solar panels.

I was thinking 48V because I believe that is the highest practical voltage that is still considered fairly safe. And telephony back-up systems use 48V so it is fairly common.

Any other thoughts on this?
Posted by jonrboyd (2 comments )
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