Photovoltaics Comes of Age

Solar panels are cheap enough to become a major component of green energy.
Originally posted at: MIT Technology Review

Zweibel-KenThe United States has supported research into photovoltaics for almost 40 years, recently with a 30 percent investment tax credit. Japan instituted incentives in the 1990s, when photovoltaics cost at least five times as much as residential electricity. In the new millennium, Germany instituted incentives an order of magnitude larger.

Thanks to these efforts, the cost of photovoltaic modules has dropped 40 percent in the last 18 months. Photovoltaic electricity now costs about 15 cents per kilowatt-hour in the best sunlight. That’s only twice the cost of wholesale electricity and wind. Costs are expected to continue decreasing, and electricity is worth more during the daytime than at night. That means this technology is finally cheap enough to become a significant element in plans to combat climate change and oil dependence.

What’s a sensible US strategy for climate change and peak oil?

climate changeIt does not have to be mysterious anymore what the US, and by implication, the world can do about climate change and peak oil. It is to deploy the appropriate amount of wind, solar, and electric transportation. With this strategy, we have the knobs for all the results we want: less and less carbon dioxide, and reduced need for oil. What more do we want?

Naturally, we must answer two key questions:

  1. How much would it cost?
  2. How do we deal with wind and solar intermittency?

It used to be that wind cost too much and solar cost way too much. Those days are gone. Now wind costs about the same as new coal plants (which is to say, as little as anything to make electricity), and solar costs (depending on local sunlight) only about half again more. (Of course, in less sunny places, solar prices go up significantly. This is why you hear so many different economic numbers quoted for solar. Small systems are also significantly more expensive than large ones, although most of this is the cost of middle-men and not hardware.)