Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Answer for Cheap Solar?

After reading through all the blogs the last couple days I was surprised I didn't see much written about Solar Energy. For one, solar is the ultimate in renewable energy...there's wind, but at some point it has a limit...there's energy in ocean currents and waves, but we don't really know what kind of effect it might have if we harness this energy on a large scale...there's nuclear, but until breeder reactors are utilized there is a limit to the fuel source.

What I like about solar is that it's always there. The sun comes up every morning and goes down every night. We don't have to invest time and money into planting it, drilling for it, harvesting it, or refining it. All we need to do is learn how to effectively utilize it.

Up till recently, everyone knew the one reason we don't simply get all our energy needs from solar sources...cost. Photovoltaic cells needed to be made out of a super pure silicon and were therefore very expensive; in addition the manufacturing process was slow and expensive. So expensive that it was not cost effective for the typical homeowner to get a solar panel on their roof. But have times changed??

I recently saw an episode of Modern Marvels on the History channel called Renewable Energy (I love the History channel). In this episode I learned about a new technology in solar energy. A company called Nanosolar is making a new type of photovoltaic. Using a Copper-Indium-Gallium-Diselenide (CIGS) alloy in the correct proportions they were able to create a semiconductor that was so effective they could create a thin film solar cell (so thin it could be painted onto a metal substrate). This breakthrough allowed them to significantly reduce the cost of producing solar cells by streamlining the manufacturing process (literally painting on the semiconductor to a thin metal sheet). Check out the YouTube video showing their manufacturing process! So, to review they eliminated the high material cost (expensive silicon) and high manufacturing cost.

In the November 12, 2007 issue of Popular Science, the new technology was named the magazine's 'Innovation of the Year Winner', check it out here. Nanosolar was also named #1 in a list of the top 20 companies that are "pushing the ecological envelope" by Plenty magazine (an environmental news and issues publication). Check out the pdf article here.

Based on these articles, Nanosolar has been able to produce their new solar cells at a cost of less that $1 per watt, which is a tenth of the traditional cost of Silicon based PV's! Nanosolar is also currently building the world's largest solar cell factory in California, touting that is will be able to produce enough solar cells to generate 430 MegaWatt's of energy a year (three times as much as the US currently produces per yr)!

Hopefully this technology will cause a revolution in green building so that we will not be so heavily reliant on fossil fuel plants for if only we could make the sun stay up all day and we could cover our cars with this photovoltaic paint! Maybe the company that does one of these two will win innovation of the year next time...

Want to read more about thin film solar?? Then check out this article in EnergyAndCapital

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