German Solar PV Manufacturer Stakes a Claim in the U.S.

Top of Mt. Hood, Oregon
Mount Hood, Oregon (image by Tony the Misfit, CC 2.0 licensed)

The New York Times on Sunday reported about Solar World‘s new solar panel plant in Oregon. The Germany company is making a big ($300 million) bet that the United States is the place to be if you are a solar panel manufacturer.

The message for solar companies, Mr. Pichel says, is “get your butt over to the U.S. if you want to participate and get some of that stimulus package money.”

Solar photovoltaics still account for less than 1% of the electricity generated in the U.S. today. However, the article reports that in various markets, including California, the number of solar panels installed is doubling every year. At that kind of growth – even if it slows down slightly due to the current recession and credit crunch – in five to ten years solar electricity could account for a much more significant share of the electricity supply.

I’ve been focused lately in the blog on energy efficiency, and not so much on alternative energy sources, so it’s good to see that there’s still a lot of momentum going on there!

Shiny Rocks May Be Good For Solar Energy

Fools Gold
Fool's Gold (image by Clearly Ambiguous, CC 2.0 licensed)

Interesting note flying around the blogosphere yesterday (see here, here, and here, amongst many websites featuring the news) about a research project done at Berkeley. It found that, based on material cost and availability, solar photovoltaics made with iron pyrites (aka Fool’s Gold) are more likely to solve our energy crisis than PV made with silicon or CIGS thinfilms. This is due to both the cost of the raw materials and their availability – both crystalline silicon and the CIGS precursors are relatively expensive and relatively rare. Iron pyrite and its precursors are among the most common elements on earth, in contrast.

What we’ve found is that some leading thin films may be difficult to scale as high as global electricity consumption… if our objective is to supply the majority of electricity in this way, we must quickly consider alternative materials that are Earth-abundant, non-toxic and cheap. These are the materials that can get us to our goals more rapidly.

The paper noted that PV cells made with iron pyrite are not as efficient as those made with silicon, but here’s where it gets interesting. I did a Google search yesterday to find out just how efficient those iron pyrite solar cells are – and I can’t find them. There are a handful of papers about iron pyrite solar cells, but none that indicate it’s anywhere near being ready to compete even on the low-efficiency end. (E.g., see here, in a paper from 2000.)

So, that may mean I’m just not any good at searching on Google, and be that as it may. The other side of the coin is that this report lines up with what I’ve [intlink id=”119″ type=”post”]been saying since October[/intlink] – it’s not about the efficiency of the cells, it’s about the [intlink id=”194″ type=”post”]price/performance[/intlink]. We have plenty of surface area on which to put solar cells, even if they aren’t very efficient. What we don’t have is lots of extra money to pay for them – so low-efficiency cells that have a good price performance ratio – $1-2/kw or $0.10-0.30/kwh – are what we’re looking for.

(And of course, we need to be a lot more efficient in our energy usage, and be able to store that good sun power we’ve generated.)

In any case, I’m now looking forward to hearing about iron pyrite-based solar cells – if you know of any post-2000 research on this topic, definitely let me know!

How Big Is The Project, Really?

Toledo tree (image by J. Lozano, CC 2.0 licensed)

According to John Lushetsky, program manager of the U.S., it’s a very big project:

To go from the 1 gigawatt of generation capacity that we have now [in the United States] to the 170 to 200 gigawatts called for by 2030 amounts to a 26 percent compounded annual growth rate over the next 20 years. That’s a higher sustained growth rate than any industry has ever been asked to do before

This was at a presentation Lushetsky gave in Toledo Ohio two weeks ago, as part of a day-long conference on “Empowering Solar Energy in Ohio.”

That 26% growth rate is very high, but there is hope. The semiconductor and IT industries had a similar growth rate over a similar period. In fact, measured using a different metric – price/performance – the semiconductor industry actually grew a lot faster. That’s one reason I like to focus on [intlink id=”189″ type=”post”]price/performance with solar energy[/intlink] – if that metric continually drops, then it’s feasible for alternative energy sources to replace conventional sources. Just as in the IT industry, [intlink id=”66″ type=”post”]the driver for growth in solar is going to be cost parity[/intlink]. That’s why the Google Foundation’s program, for example, is RE < C (“renewable energy costs less than coal“) instead of something like “200 GW by 2030”.

Combining dropping solar power costs with increasing energy efficiency gets you to the goal fastest, of course. Getting efficient is already cheaper than buying energy in a lot of cases. (We need a whole other set of posts to discuss the barriers to getting efficient – it’s cheap, cost-effective, and profitable but still challenging.)

DoE Secretary Steven Chu: We Need Nobel-Level Breakthroughs

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu
Secretary of Energy Steven Chu

Yesterday the New York Times published an interview (including some of the original audio) with our new Energy Secretary, Steven Chu. Among other comments, he said that to address the climate emergency, we need “Nobel-level breakthroughs” in several key areas – batteries, biofuels, and solar photovoltaics.” As an illustration, he pointed out:

The photovoltaics we have today, … without subsidy, and without even the additional cost of storage, it’s about a factor of five higher than electricity generation by gas or coal. Suppose someone comes along and invents a way of getting … solar photovoltaics at one fifth the cost, so you don’t even think about subsidies anymore. You just slap it everywhere… That, in my opinion, would take something, which I would say, is a bit of a breakthrough.”

There’s no arguing with that idea – if solar PV were five times cheaper, no one would need complicated “payback period” models to justify installing it. (Luckily, we do have those models, and so some people are taking the plunge.)

Of course, this is just the story of how technologies advance – it’s very familiar from the rise of semiconductors. A technology needs an ever-expanding “feedstock” of innovations, discoveries, and breakthroughs to grow at an exponential rate. In semiconductors, the history of technologies such as FET, MOS, CMOS, new clean room techniques, different types of lithography, and many other innovations each offered ever decreasing feature size and lower cost. This parade of innovations combined to ensure that just when one technology was reaching its limit of compactness, another newer and more efficient technology would be there to take its place. When the new one ran out of steam the cycle would repeat. (And several of those innovations resulted in Nobels.)

One example of the “old thinking” on PV is the projections about its availability and cost. Many of these projections assume a linear improvement in price/performance. To help save the world, the price/performance of solar electricity and batteries and efficiency and fuel cells must come down faster than the typical, linear projections – just as it did for semiconductors.

Luckily, despite a current dip in investment and research levels due to the economy, this is happening in the solar photovoltaics domain. [intlink id=”210″ type=”post”]New[/intlink] [intlink id=”218″ type=”post”]discoveries[/intlink], new manufacturing methods, and [intlink id=”66″ type=”post”]new thinking[/intlink] will continue to drive the price down. With luck, Chu’s support from his bully pulpit in the DoE can accelerate this process.

Hat tip to Watthead for turning me on to this interview.

Zero Net Energy Homes Part 4 – Honda Accord Versus Solar Panels

El �ºltimo de los mohicanos
Money ('El Altimo de los Mohicanos' - photo by wakalani, CC 2.0 licensed)

One of the biggest problems for residential solar electricity generation is that it just costs too darn much to install those panels on your roof. Over the next five and ten years this will change significantly as new developments from the labs make it into large-scale production. Eventually houses will be generating all their own electricity using photovoltaics as a matter of course.

But is there a way to think about the cost today that makes the cost even seem reasonable?

Well, if you’re thinking about buying a new car, you should read on. Each year you don’t buy a new car and continue to drive the one that you’ve already paid for, you pays for another year of your solar panels. At the end of the loan period (seven years in my example below), you’re getting free electricity from a system that increases the value of your home and has another 20 years of life at the minimum. If you’d bought a car, in seven years you’d be driving a rapidly depreciating vehicle that you’d probably have to replace soon.

For my house, after rebates, putting up solar panels today would cost about $22,000. This would be a 4kw system, offsetting about 92% of my electric bill, according to the solar power calculator at Clean Power Estimator. With a $3,000 down payment, and using SunPower’s “Smart Financing” with a seven year term, my monthly net cost would be about $250, after subtracting out my electric bill.

So, $22,000 total cost, $3,000 down payment, $250 monthly – that sounds just about exactly like buying a new car, doesn’t it? In fact, if I go to and price out a new Honda Accord EX, that comes out to $22,372. My current car, a 2000 Honda Accord, is worth $4,000. So I need to finance $18,000. With a four year loan, I’ll be paying about $420 per month.

Netting it out, for each year that I make the decision to buy solar panels versus a new car, I actually save about $170 per month. At the same time, according to the solar power calculator, I eliminate almost four tons of CO2 (worth an additional $320 at the currently accepted value of $80/ton). After seven years, all that electricity will be free to me, for at least the rated life of the panels. And I’ll get most or all of the cost of the panels back when I sell my house. When I sell the new Honda, I’ll get a lot less than I paid for it.

As an additional note, if you’re thinking about buying a new BMW, such as an M3. If you chose a BMW 335i with Sport Package instead, you could put up the solar panels with the difference in cost: 1 BMW M3 = 1 BMW 330i + Sport Package + solar panels. You’d get nearly the same performance – much more than you can effectively use anywhere in the U.S. except on a race track – and you’d offset all the CO2 you’d be generating with your new car.

Definitely let me know if I’ve convinced you to put up solar panels instead of buying a car this year! Or if you have any other comments on this topic – I’d love to hear from you.

Ten Energy Predictions For The Next Decade

Snow on the San Gabriel Mountains (photo by Jerry Thompson1)
Snow on the San Gabriel Mountains (photo by Jerry Thompson1, CC 2.0 license)

On December 30 of last year (six days ago), my wife and I were in Pasadena, CA visiting the Greene and Greene exhibit at the Huntington Library. It was one of those glorious and rare smog-free days in the LA basin. The air sparkled, you could see for miles in every direction, and mountain range after mountain range was visible – all the way out to the snow-covered San Gabriels. Nowadays, the air is only ever this clear around the Christmas holiday, when the freeway traffic is substantially reduced and a lot of factories shut down for the week. It got me thinking about how the future – say ten to twenty years hence – may be unrecognizable in both dramatic and mundane ways. For example, smog-free days may no longer be rare in LA, once the economy has shifted off fossil fuels. (I suspect the traffic will remain, unfortunately!)

Like LA’s typical skies, the energy future is murky in the short term – this year and 2010 – and I’ll leave those predictions to others. But the big trends – sustainability, carbon fighting, and technological breakthroughs – enable us to make better sense of the mid- and long-term. Therefore, In the spirit of the New Year, the incoming administration, and the tipping point that the world has come to about climate change and sustainability, here are ten things I believe are very likely to happen in the next ten years.

  1. Residential solar PV will be cost effective in most U.S. locations (via a combination of price reduction, new design thinking, much more efficient homes, and a carbon tax on fossil fuels).
  2. Home energy storage – via batteries, hydrogen reforming, fuel cells, or other technology – will be available and installed in 10% of new homes in California, for when the sun don’t shine.
  3. More than 10% of new homes in California will be zero-net energy.
  4. 50% of new residential construction in California will be zero-net energy “ready.”
  5. The current LEED standards will be considered obsolete.
  6. More than 20% of peak grid electricity will come from excess capacity from residential solar PV.
  7. There will be general consensus that efficiency and frugality alone will not provide enough CO2 mitigation to prevent major climate change – we will need a technological solution to actually reducing atmospheric CO2 or artificially cooling the earth.
  8. There will be a mid-priced carbon fiber, plugin hybrid passenger car in production that gets more than 75 miles per gallon. The company making it will be the “next GM.”
  9. 10% of the cars on the road will be powered by 100% renewable energy and will be essentially non-polluting.
  10. New technologies for capturing carbon from the atmosphere will be available, powered by excess solar capacity.

What do you think? Am I off base here? Too optimistic? Too pessimistic? Let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear your thoughts, challenges, and predictions for 2018.

Zero-net Energy Series Coming Up

Over the next few weeks, I will be publishing a series on “zero-net energy” residences (related to predictions 1-6 above). This area is about to explode. We already have all the technology, and some people have the experience, to build “zero-net energy ready” houses cost effectively. And although there’s currently a premium to get to zero-net energy, over the next ten years this premium will go to zero, and probably it will be cost-effective to get to positive-net energy – where the house is generating more energy than it needs! Talk about a world-changing situation – it really is possible to have energy too cheap to meter, but it’s going to come off our roofs, not from a nuclear plant or one of those imaginary fusion reactors.

A Bright Spot In The Housing Crisis – Solar Houses Still Selling

In an October article Will Demand for Solar Homes Pick Up? Business Week reporter Adam Aston discovers that houses with built in solar energy collectors are bucking the general downward trend in the market.

Consumers recognize that green homes “save money month in, month out,” says Rick Andreen, president of Shea Homes Active Lifestyles Communities in Scottsdale, Ariz.

The combination of the renewal of the investment tax credits for solar installations, the ascendance of “green” lifestyles, and to some degree the target demographic of these homes, the number of solar houses in the U.S. is set to spike from 40,000 units. Several of the big home builders in Arizona, California, and other states are ramping up their plans for solar houses. Especially after the experience of Standard Pacific Homes in their Whitney Ranch, a development south of Sacramento. Sales had been soft, but when Standard Pacific put solar systems on a group of new models in the development, they sold out. Now they’re putting solar panels on all 304 of the homes.

Running Some Numbers On Rooftop Solar Energy in 2018

Solar power systems installed in the areas def...
Solar power systems covering the areas defined by the dark disks could provide more than the world total primary energy demand in 2006 (assuming a conversion efficiency of 8%). Image from Wikipedia.

I recently asked physicist Richard Muller whether he thought the price-performance of solar electricity generation would follow a Moore’s Law-type curve. He said that this would not occur due to improving the efficiency of solar collection, as the current levels of efficiency – 20-40% – are reasonably high. However, he added

“I do expect the price to drop by a factor of 10, so we will have lots of solar.”

Well, in the nature of things, there’s definitely a limit to how much energy a solar PV collector can get from a square meter of sunlight. (There’s about 1kw of energy in a square meter – as I learned in Physics For Future Presidents, by Professor Muller – so we can expect to get 400 watts or less.) The amount of this energy per square meter we can collect will go up, but asymptotically approach (at best) the physical limits.

On the other hand, I’d argue that the cost of collecting it can go down a nearly unlimited amount – certainly multiple orders of magnitude. So what will solar PV look like in 2018 – ten years from now?

Continue reading “Running Some Numbers On Rooftop Solar Energy in 2018”

Why My Optimism Is Tempered

Achieving energy independence in the U.S. is possible, but there are many obstacles to overcome.

On 140 acres of unused land on Nellis Air Forc...Image via Wikipedia

I wrote on Monday about why I am optimistic that we will come out of this energy mess in excellent shape. But, my optimism is not unalloyed – there are a lot of questions still to answer.

  • Is there truly enough capturable solar energy streaming down on the Earth to power a good lifestyle for all 9 billion of us in 2050? Clearly not, at least at the U.S.’s current per capita energy intensity. What about at 50% of our current energy use? That’s a target that many think we can accomplish here in the U.S., so why not around the world?
  • What about all the C02 we’ve stuck up there already? Can we do something about it that won’t end up causing as many problems as it solves? Certainly sensible steps like reversing deforestation will help a lot, but do we have time, and do we know how? Can we grow a rainforest from a burned-out meadow, even if it use to be a rainforest? This is not clear – but we should figure it out.
  • Can we do any of this fast enough? I’ve argued that the technology and knowledge are here for reducing our energy footprint in the U.S. by 50% and replacing all of the remaining energy needs with renewables, but is there time and will to do it? The sheer manpower that it will take? Even if owners of commercial real estate were willing to do the necessary retrofits to achieve the goals, because they are cost effective? More importantly, if every one agreed to do it, are there enough architects, contractors, HVAC installers, and electricians to do the work?
  • There’s a similar question for residences – most residences get enough solar energy flux on the roof to offset a good portion of their electricity use – but even if the cost were free, after first year saving, who would do the 100 million installations? Even if spread over ten years, that would keep 25,000 installers busy every day.

There are many more such questions – can we successfully combine distributed power generation (e.g., on residences) with utility energy on a gigantic scale? Where do all the materials to do these installations come from?

I’d love to hear your questions and comments about whether you’re optimistic, the obstacles you see in the road ahead, and your ideas on how to overcome the roadblocks.

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