Affordable solar?

December 12, 2011

It's time to stop thinking of solar energy as a boutique source of power, says Joshua Pearce.

Sure, solar only generates about 1 percent of the electricity in the US. But that will change in a few years, says Pearce, an associate professor of electrical engineering and materials science at Michigan Technological University. The ultimate in renewable energy is about to go mainstream.

It's a matter of economics. A definitive new analysis by Pearce and his colleagues at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, shows that solar photovoltaic systems are very close to achieving the tipping point in many regions: they can make electricity that's as cheap-- sometimes cheaper--than what consumers pay their utilities.

Here's why. First, the price of solar panels has plummeted. "Since 2009, the cost has dropped 70 percent," says Pearce. But more than that, the assumptions used in previous studies have not given solar an even break.

"Historically, when comparing the economics of solar and conventional energy, people have been very conservative," says Pearce.

To figure out the true cost of photovoltaic energy, analysts need to consider several variables, including the cost to install and maintain the system, finance charges, how long it lasts, and how much electricity it generates. Pearce and his colleagues performed an exhaustive review of the previous studies and concluded that the values given those variables were out of whack.

"It is still a common misconception that solar PV technology has a short life and is therefore extremely expensive," he said. However, PV panels are solid-state electronic devices with no moving parts and should last a long time. "Based on the latest long-term studies, we should be doing our economic analysis on a 30-year lifetime at minimum," Pearce said.

In addition, most analyses assume that the productivity of solar panels will drop at an annual rate of 1 percent or more, a huge overestimation, according to Pearce. "If you buy a top-of-the-line solar panel, it's much less, between 0.1 and 0.2 percent."

Finally, "The price of the solar equipment has been dropping, so you'd think that the older papers would have higher cost estimates," Pearce said. "That's not necessarily the case." Equipment costs are determined based on dollars per watt of electricity produced. Very recent studies set the amount between $2 and $10. The true cost in 2011, says Pearce, is under $1 per watt for solar panels on the global market, though system and installation costs vary widely. In some parts of the world, solar is already economically superior, and the study concludes that solar will become an increasingly economical source of electricity over expanding geographical regions.

In regions with a burgeoning solar industry, thanks to government programs that pay a premium for renewable energy, there are lots of solar panel installers, which heats up the market. "Elsewhere, installation costs have been high because contractors will do just one job a month," says Pearce. "Increasing demand and competition would drop installation costs considerably."

Furthermore, economic studies like Pearce's don't generally taken into account solar energy's intangible benefits, reduced pollution and carbon emissions. And while silicon-based solar panels do rely on a nonrenewable resource--sand--they are no threat to the world's beaches. It only takes about a sandwich baggie of sand to make a roof's worth of thin-film photovoltaic cells, Pearce said.

Based on the study, and on the fact that the cost of conventional power continues to creep upward, Pearce believes that solar energy will soon be a major player in the energy game. "It's just a matter of time before market economics catches up with it," he says.
-end-
The study can be found at: K. Branker, M. J.M. Pathak, J. M. Pearce, "A Review of Solar Photovoltaic Levelized Cost of Electricity", Renewable & Sustainable Energy Reviews 15, 4470-4482 (2011). http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.rser.2011.07.104.

Michigan Technological University

Related Renewable Energy Articles from Brightsurf:

Creating higher energy density lithium-ion batteries for renewable energy applications
Lithium-ion batteries that function as high-performance power sources for renewable applications, such as electric vehicles and consumer electronics, require electrodes that deliver high energy density without compromising cell lifetimes.

Renewable energy targets can undermine sustainable intentions
Renewable energy targets (RETs) may be too blunt a tool for ensuring a sustainable future, according to University of Queensland-led research.

Intelligent software for district renewable energy management
CSEM has developed Maestro, an intelligent software application that can manage and schedule the production and use of renewable energies for an entire neighborhood.

Renewable energy transition makes dollars and sense
New UNSW research has disproved the claim that the transition to renewable electricity systems will harm the global economy.

Renewable energy advance
In order to identify materials that can improve storage technologies for fuel cells and batteries, you need to be able to visualize the actual three-dimensional structure of a particular material up close and in context.

Illuminating the future of renewable energy
A new chemical compound created by researchers at West Virginia University is lighting the way for renewable energy.

Using fiber optics to advance safe and renewable energy
Fiber optic cables, it turns out, can be incredibly useful scientific sensors.

Renewable energy developments threaten biodiverse areas
More than 2000 renewable energy facilities are built in areas of environmental significance and threaten the natural habitats of plant and animal species across the globe.

Could water solve the renewable energy storage challenge?
Seasonally pumped hydropower storage could provide an affordable way to store renewable energy over the long-term, filling a much needed gap to support the transition to renewable energy, according to a new study from IIASA scientists.

Scientists take strides towards entirely renewable energy
Researchers have made a major discovery that will make it immeasurably easier for people (or super-computers) to search for an elusive 'green bullet' catalyst that could ultimately provide entirely renewable energy.

Read More: Renewable Energy News and Renewable Energy Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.