Solar costs to drop by half in five years?

Quite a bit has been said about the price of solar. Even I was turned off by the up-front costs of between $20,000 and $26,000 to add panels to the roof of my house.

However, new data show the price of electricity generated by the sun could soon could cost no more or less than electricity from the grid, according to a report touting Recovery Act spending released by Vice President Joe Biden this week.

"The cost of solar is forecast to reach grid parity over the next five years in many parts of the country," the report said, citing information from the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Technologies Program. "This means homeowners, who pay an average retail cost of about 10 cents per kilowatt hour, or kWh, for electricity from the grid, and utility companies, which have average wholesale power costs closer to 5 cents/kWh, can use solar power without paying a premium over fossil-based electricity."

Much depends on development of solar thin-film technology, which comes in two main varieties: cadmium telluride, or Cd-Te, and copper indium gallium selenide, or CIGS. The report, "The Recovery Act: Transforming the American Economy Through Innovation," said this would cut existing prices for solar power in half.

Further price reductions are expected, they could take years.

"If breakthroughs in technology can bring costs down to $0.06/kWh by 2030, solar power will be cheaper than retail electricity from the grid, even without government incentives," the report said. "At that cost, an average household with rooftop solar panels could save more than $400 each year in electricity bills."

By 2030, I'll be 70. Wonder if I'll still care? Probably.

Stephanie Powers of takes on the topic in a recent post. Her conclusion: It's still too expensive. Citing a U.S. Energy Information Administration report, she wrote, "The average cost of solar power is almost four times as much as traditional coal burning electric generation. The costs are difficult to compare due to the widely disparate nature of individual technologies but the net result is that startup costs are steep."

Many consider coal a viable option with about 30 new electricity-producing plants planned. It's dirtier, but cheaper and at this point obviously makes economic sense to those putting up the cash.

We burned coal in Fairbanks, Alaska (city motto: "We're way cooler than Fresno") our first winter in 1969, and it left a layer of gray dust on everything. We moved from the rented two-car garage into a new log cabin we had built with thick walls, doubled-up multi-paned windows and wood heat. Much cleaner.

Wood was a little more expensive, but spruce and birch smelled better than the sub-bituminous coal from the Usibelli Mine just up from Mount McKinley Park.

The same analogy could be used on solar: a little more costly but it doesn't dust you up with guilt.

But solar's making headway. While the U.S. Energy Information Administration's latest figures released this month show that just 0.6 percent of California's power comes from solar -- and 3.7 percent from wind -- a post by my colleague Sandy Nax says a bunch of new projects could obliterate that number in the state.

And Katy Rank Lev of Mother Nature Network wrote earlier this month about a study by researchers at Duke University in North Carolina that says solar power has become cheaper than nuclear power. She writes, the researchers "found that the cost of 'producing photovoltaic cells has been dropping for years ... at the same time, estimated costs for building new nuclear power plants have ballooned.' Thus, it's cheaper to put solar panels on houses than to build a new nuclear power plant to service them."

So, while solar is about twice the price now of electricity from the grid, it is expected to drop. But it needs people to buy in. Demand drives innovation and all that. And I'm not even bringing up the not-so-hidden environmental cost of fossil fuels.

We'll be watching.