Solar power has not taken off as a serious contributor to national energy because the cost is too high per kwh produced. The long term (50 years or more from now) potential for solar is really good, as it is a renewable for of energy that falls everywhere on the planet, and there is 10,000 times more energy that the sun delivers to the world today then humans currently consume from fossil fuels and other energy sources. What needs to happen is an improvement in 2 places: efficiency (ability to capture more sunlight) and price to produce. Scientists and engineers are working on this, so it is only a matter of time before solar becomes competitive with fossil fuels, but the question is: how much time?
In Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity in Near he points out that:
The efficiency of solar power has gone from 4% in 1952 to 24% in 1992, current multilayer cells reach 34%, and a recent analysis of applying nanocrystals to solar energy conversion above 60% is feasible.So the potential is out there. How far does it need to go?
Today solar power is estimated at $2.75/W. Once solar power falls below $1/W it will be competitive on the grid.One company he points out is Nanosolar.
Nanosolar has a design based on titanium oxide nanoparticles that can be mass produced that is estimated to have the potential to bring solar power costs to around $.50 a watt by 2006 lower than natural gas.Wow, $.50 a watt in 2006! If they could do that, it would be a game changer. I checked out Nanosolar's website, but it is lacking any numerical analysis as to its price per watt. This leaves me skeptical if they are anywhere near that level.
The Ergosphere chimes in:
At 12% efficiency and $30 per square meter, such cells could cost as little as $.25/watt-peak, a far cry from the $4.00 that current silicon cells go for at retail.Regardless, they are doing some really innovate stuff. They are roll printing their solar cells like a newspaper, and the resulting solar panels are flexible and much lighter than other photovoltaic panels. This allows them to be used in areas that they weren't before, and will make it possible to build roofs with the solar panels built in. Definitely a company to watch if their products can match their claims.
$30 per square meter is cheaper than many varieties of roofing, but the cost of fabrication and encapsulation is still going to place a floor beneath the cost and limit the applications. Greater efficiency can reduce costs by getting more watts out of the same investment in encapsulation and packaging.