The Ergosphere
Tuesday, December 21, 2004
 

Tide turning II

New Scientist reports an ultra-thin "polymorphous" (polycrystalline?) silicon solar cell coming in at one micrometer thick and potentially as cheap as 1 euro per peak watt.  On top of this, it's flexible and can be rolled.  (Hat tip: Slashdot.)

This leapfrogs the current contender for price/performance leadership, the titanium-dioxide technology used by NanoSolar (though NanoSolar appears to have a greater margin for price cuts).  The extreme reduction in material required should cut the energy-payback time by a large fraction, probably to less than a year.  The efficiency is not great at 7%, but cost more than makes up for this; the creators hope they can reach 10%.  If they can do this without increasing the cost/area, the cost will fall to less than $1/Wpeak.

Insolation over much of the continental US runs between 120 and 200 kcal/cm2/yr, so selecting values in that range:

Insolation,
kcal/cm2/yr
Insolation,
kWH/m2/yr
Energy yield,
kWH/m2/yr
Cost/m2
Interest
rate
Lifespan.
years
Energy cost,
cents/kWH
120 1394.67 97.63 $123.80
7% 25 10.8
160
1859.56 130.17
$123.80
7% 25 8.1
200
2324.44 162.71
$123.80
7% 25 6.4

This appears to be competitive with flat-rate grid power, and extremely competitive with daytime afternoon peak rates.  Panels at this price could begin replacing peaking generation in the Southwest as soon as they went into production.  For the USA, tax considerations make solar even more favorable for homeowners.  Mortgage interest is tax-deductible, while utility costs are after-tax.  If the full added cost of the solar system is mortgaged and the buyer's marginal tax rate is 28%, the cost of the homeowner's own energy consumption falls to less than 8 cents per kWH.

Economic analysis:  At 7% efficiency and $1.34/Wpeak at a solar flux of 1000 W/m2, the new cells would cost $93.80/m2.  If we assume that encapsulation and other costs run to $30/m2, covering the roof of a 2000 sf, 2-story house (~90 m2) with such cells would cost roughly $11,000; this roof would generate 6300 watts in peak sunlight, of which perhaps 6 kW could be converted to AC for use locally or on the grid.

What could this do?

The impervious area of the United States (roughly the area of Ohio) receives on the order of 500 quads of solar energy per year.  If this could all be captured and 7% converted to electricity, that is 35 quads of electricity.  In contrast, all coal- and nuclear-produced electricity amounts to less than 10 quads per year, and the petroleum-derived power delivered to the wheels of all US vehicles is approximately 5.5 quads/year (15.04 TBTU/day * 0.365).  Energy from solar would be cheaper than petroleum, and plug-in hybrids could turn it into a direct replacement for imported oil.  An investment of $100 billion per year would purchase ~800 million m2 of panels, which would produce ~100 billion KWH (0.34 quads) of electricity every year.  In fifteen years solar electricity could replace all petroleum-derived energy used by motor vehicles; adding another $100 billion/year would generate enough to replace all coal and nuclear electricity over roughly 30 years.

Let's get moving. We have no time to waste. 
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