solar price

Solar joins the right-price energy club

Solar parity is here.

Honest. That's what a new study from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario says.

"Given the state of the art in the technology and favourable financing terms it is clear that PV has already obtained grid parity in specific locations," say K. Brawker, M.J.M. Pathak and J.M. Pearce in the report, "A Review of Solar Photovoltaic Levelized Cost of Electricity."

That and technological innovation, which is driving up solar system efficiencies, could open new markets and spur significant development of projects focused on harvesting the sun's energy. In California's San Joaquin Valley, we're already seeing the results with about 40 projects in the works in Fresno County and at least as many in nearby counties.

Ferocious cost reductions

Sami Grover, from, put it this way: "With the solar industry delivering ferocious cost reductions, falling as much as 11 percent in just six months, it's little wonder that some predict that solar will be cheaper than coal in the very near future."

A editor says the findings by Queen's University don't even take into account health, energy security and environmental costs of fossil fuels "and it STILL finds that solar has reached grid parity in many places."

The recent Durban Climate Summit clarified the dangers of allowing pollution to continue without restraint. The cost and potential damage of unparalleled production of greenhouse gases is impossible to determine. But one thing's for certain, it will be huge.

The rapid innovation of solar technology offers a way to cut into reliance on fossil fuels. Whether it will make a difference is anybody's guess.

Solar interest high

A solar research symposium at the University of California, Merced, Dec. 9, 2011, draws students and researchers from UC Merced's program, which is fast becoming a leader in solar research, and University of California campuses of Berkeley, Davis, Santa Barbara and San Diego as well as other universities. All report that their programs are working hard to improve the efficiency of solar cells.

At the symposium, Sarah Kurtz, interim director of the National Center for Photovoltaics and principal scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, tells my co-worker Sandy Nax that costs are dropping "spectacularly."

Nax also reports in a recent post that the industry is expanding at a robust rate with photovoltaic shipments doubling every two years.

Gaining efficiency

While many photovoltaic cells on the market range between 12 and 20 percent efficient, moves are being made to increase that number significantly. However, those technologies also cost more. "The challenge is to make high efficiency with low cost and high reliability," Kurtz says.

Some in our sun-drenched valley are concerned about seeing solar panels everywhere, especially on prime farmland. Nax tells me that efficiencies reduce solar's footprint and likely will improve its image, especially amongst concerned farmers.

That and estimated $1 per watt equipment costs will go a long way toward influencing standards that include photovoltaic panels as part of nearly every newly constructed building or major retrofit and remodel. Toss in escalating electricity rates, and solar may become as common as flat-screen television sets in American households.

But rather than offering entertainment, this electronic device will create a new era of distributed energy.

Nothing's easy

There will be challenges. For instance, what happens when the sun falls below the horizon? Cheap solar provides options that weren't otherwise available. Perhaps production of hydrogen will become more widespread that either can be used in fuel cells or in other applications.

Political leaders also will have to knuckle under and institute more laws like California's Global Warming Solutions Act, which seeks to reduce the state's greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels, and the requirement that utilities get a third of their energy from renewable sources by 2020. Otherwise, the incentive by the private sector to start figuring out cleaner alternatives might not great enough to foster widespread change.

It can be done. Even at Durban, which drew representatives from 190 countries, leaders in the final hours of the Climate Summit put together what some media sources call a road map to a legally binding climate treaty by 2020.

We'll see.

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.