The Big Question

Solar Energy: The Quest for Cheap


The big number is 50. When companies can produce solar photovoltaic modules for less than 50¢ per watt, solar energy will be able to compete directly with coal. Right now, the cheapest solar cells are being produced for as little as 70¢ per watt. They are selling for about $1.26 per watt, with prices expected to drop to $1.17 next year. Most anticipate they they will hit 50¢ per watt within four or five years.

To get a sense of just how much prices have declined, one of the biggest manufacturers, Tempe (Ariz.)-based First Solar (FSLR), was selling solar power panels for $3 a watt in 2005.

As prices fall, demand is growing. Total solar installations in the second quarter grew by 69 percent over the same period in 2010. The number of Americans working in the solar industry more than doubled, to 100,000, from 2009 to 2011, according to the Solar Energy Industries Assn. That’s considerably more than the 80,600 coal miners working in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“At the point where you say, ‘It’s cheaper to use solar than natural gas or coal,’ that’s when you’ll really see a rush,” says Jeff Siegel, managing editor of Green Chip Stocks, a research firm that focuses on alternative energy.

Carnage Amid Lower Costs

Behind the price drops are cheaper manufacturing costs, lower costs for such crucial raw materials as silicon, and rapidly improving technology. Cheaper photovoltaic cells manufactured in China and misplaced bets on more-expensive technologies and materials have battered stocks and created corporate wrecks like now-bankrupt Solyndra and the less-well-known but no-less-bankrupt Evergreen Solar (ESLRQ) and SpectraWatt. Others are anticipated to follow.

“Solar is still a very young industry, it’s in enormous turmoil,” says Frank van Mierlo, chief executive officer of 1366 Technologies, a Lexington (Mass.)-based manufacturer of silicon photovoltaics. “The largest solar company has been different every year for the last six years. This is a young market where things are getting flushed out. Fundamentally—for us as a country—this is really good news. You want solar to be cheap.”

Dozens of startups in the U.S. have potentially transformative ideas. The question is which can come out on top. The wide variety of companies developing competing technologies to capture and distribute solar power underscores the market’s immaturity. Currently, researchers are experimenting with materials ranging from silicon to gallium arsenide to cadmium telluride, basing cost projections on disparate technologies that create solar cells.

The goal is to build one that competes without government subsidies. SunShot, an initiative from the U.S. Energy Dept., has since 2007 spent $59 million to help attract an additional $1.2 billion in private solar investment, with the stated goal of a 50¢ module.

Can the U.S.Fend Off China?

Notwithstanding competition from China, costs are most likely to fall because of technological advances. “This is an industry where we can win,” says 1366 Technologies’s van Mierlo. “We can win and we can compete. We have to do it based on technology. The good news is we have a technology lead.”

A promising startup is Alta Devices in Santa Clara, Calif. With 80 percent of the market dominated by silicon solar cells, Alta Devices is attempting to break in from the outside, using gallium arsenide, a material usually considered too expensive for anything other than use by the likes of NASA.

The advantage of gallium arsenide is that it is highly efficient and works better than standard silicon in low light and at high temperatures. The foundations of Alta’s manufacturing process were patented back in 1979 but shelved until it became cost-effective due to advances in chemical availability. Because the material is so thin, Alta’s solar panels can be embedded into roof shingles or rolled out like carpets.

“Alta is going down a different kind of path of trying to create a standalone company,” says Steve Eglash, executive director of Stanford University’s Energy & Environment Affiliates program. “They are working on a complete module and they are doing it in a novel and disruptive way.”

Alta Looks to Break Ground

Until June, Alta Devices was a stealth startup. CEO Christopher Norris says the company is currently building a pilot line and will break ground on a factory in 2012, based on estimates that the cost of production will be roughly 50¢ per watt by 2014.

“On thing that is clear is that you have to be competitive on cost in order to compete in this market,” says Norris. “We are. We don’t worry about that. You have to accept that it’s going to be a really competitive market.”

Alta Devices recently raised $72 million from investors, including Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers, New Enterprise Associates, and Dow Chemicals (DOW). It is one of the first three companies funded by a joint venture from General Electric (GE), ConocoPhillips (COP), and NRG Energy (NRG).

First Solar’s Shining Edge

The companies that currently dominate the solar market look forward to cheaper unit prices, too. First Solar, the world’s largest maker of thin-film solar panels, already has a technological advantage. The company broke out using cheaper methods to create photovoltaic cells made from cadmium telluride. First Solar has told investors that production costs will range between 52¢ to 63¢ per watt by 2014.

The company is already creating more than two gigawatts of panels annually, enough to power roughly 1.5 million to 2 million homes a year in such markets as India, Germany, and the U.S. That kind of volume sets a high bar for other companies to reach. Not that upstarts aren’t trying. Solyndra was operating on that model.

“There are probably a couple hundred solar-cell startup companies,” says Stanford’s Eglash. “Most of them will not succeed in creating a standalone company.”

1366 Technologies, for example, is trying to create higher efficiency in the production of silicon solar cells. The company claims its manufacturing advances will give producers the ability to create a cell for 50¢ in two to five years.

“For society, it’s a good thing that the cost of solar is coming down,” says Alan Bernheimer, spokesman for First Solar. “The industry is consolidating. Solar is in a solid position, growing, with a pipeline of development projects in the U.S. Costs fall, prices fall, the market consolidates, but that’s good because it brings the cost of solar down at the same time.”

50¢ seems closer than ever.

Click here to read how energy experts respond to the Big Question: “What Do You Think is the Most Important Thing American Can Do to Improve Its Energy Future?”

Stonington is a reporter for Businessweek.com.

Toyota's Hydrogen Man
LIMITED-TIME OFFER SUBSCRIBE NOW

Companies Mentioned

  • FSLR
    (First Solar Inc)
    • $45.03 USD
    • -0.18
    • -0.4%
Market data is delayed at least 15 minutes.

Sponsored Links

Buy a link now!

 
blog comments powered by Disqus