April 3, 2007 2:00 PM PDT

Getting the price right for solar

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Solar panel makers are also reducing the amount of silicon they have to put in their cells. In the first quarter of 2005, SunPower's cells contained between 12 and 14 grams of silicon. They now contain about 7 grams, said SunPower president and chief technical officer Richard Swanson, who believes it can get to 5 grams over time.

Meeting demand
Meanwhile, about half the cost of purchasing solar panels is tied up in installation, according to industry executives.

Speaking at the MIT solar power panel, Swanson said the company expects to reduce the total cost of buying panels by 60 percent by 2016. About half of those savings will come by lowering installation costs, he said.

"The low hanging fruit is the cost of putting panels on the roof," he said. "The costs have been coming down to the point where we're close to grid parity, but we're still a factor of two away."

One technique for reducing the installation cost comes in integrating solar cells into roofing materials or tiles, so the solar components are installed at the same time as the roof. PowerLight, which SunPower bought last year, has already signed deals with home developers to build homes with its tiles.

Financing can go a long way to making solar power more attractive as well. Although they eventually pay for themselves, a solar PV system for a home can cost $20,000 to $40,000 before rebates.

"We're cutting the net cost in kilowatts per hour by 35 percent just by financial innovation, and we get another 15 percent in delivery innovation," said

SunPower's Swanson said the industry could make big mistakes if it tries grow too fast, which could result in disillusioned customers.

"The question is, what is a sustainable and realistic growth rate? It's been around 30 to 40 percent and that's at the upper end of what makes sense," he said. "The trick is maintaining the right balance between policy and capital."

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5 comments

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Solar isn't always available
I very much want to invest in solar power for my home (I have a large, south-facing roof) but I cannot find a dealer in my area (near St. Louis). I have been told that suppliers are concentrating on customers in the sunbelt where electricity costs are relatively high. I understand the financial and marketing logic but it is disappointing for those of us who like the idea of "free" energy.
Posted by kmne68 (7 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Try findsolar .com to locate an installer
This site will list all of the available solar contractors in your area, if there are any.

CW
Posted by hindmost (1 comment )
Link Flag
Initial price is only part of the problem
The dirty little secret of this technology is the efficiency degrades over time and eventually requires replacement, so do an install today and expect to do it again in 20 years.

So, spend $24K (An estimate given to me last year) and then spread that expense over 20 years which means you have a basic annual cost of $1200 or around $100/month, which is not much less than my average monthly power bill and this assumes that the solar solution will supplant my regular electrical source 100% of the time (In my area, it will be more like 65-70%).

And then there is the environmental factor. First, solar cells are made in a manner similar to computer chips which requires a fair amount of energy and generates a lot of chemical waste.
Second, after twenty years you have to dispose of these things and there are only a few companies that are doing recycling for these products.

I know a lot of things can change in 20 years, but the core technology used in today's cells is pretty much the same as it was 20 years ago and improvements in efficiency, and cost have only been incremental.

I think I will wait a little longer.
Posted by adlyb1 (123 comments )
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A good point, but...
You make a good point that the article seems to completely miss.

The quote $$ per kilowatt hour, but over how long is that amortized? Five years? 10 years? 20 years? The true unit of measure of solar arrays is kilowatts, NOT kilowatt hours. A more accurate measure would be a quote of $$ per kilowatt -- or even more precisely $$ per kilowatt hour and a period over which this is amortized.

However, you are wrong that you must completely replace your array every 20 years or so. The degradation rate -- even in Earth orbit with none of the protection from adverse solar radiation that we here on the surface are afforded is a componded rate of just 3% a year and the newest cells have a degradation rate of about 2% a year.

Thus after 20 years your array will still output more than 66% of what you had on day one.

Sure there are mechanical and electrical maintenance you will have to do over 20 years (and that cost in NOT trivial). However, you don't have to completely replace your array 20 years from now.
Posted by shadowself (202 comments )
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Solar
The cost per KW is constantly going higher as it is locked into fossil fuel cost in most areas that do not have Hydro electric. you might want to look into this company that rents you the panels and locks you at your current rate. Your state must have approved regulations that require the Utility company to buy back excess power that you generate and you must be on the grid.
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://renu.citizenre.com/" target="_newWindow">http://renu.citizenre.com/</a>
Posted by honky (1 comment )
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