Look what’s cooking in the world of renewable energy - Phil McKenna (Ensia)
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The solar and wind innovations that got us where we are today — and those waiting in the wings — point to a hopeful future.
April 6, 2015 — Inside a sprawling single-story office building in Bedford, Mass., in a secret room known as the Growth Hall, the future of solar power is cooking at more than 2,500 °F. Behind closed doors and downturned blinds, custom-built ovens with ambitious names like “Fearless” and “Intrepid” are helping to perfect a new technique of making silicon wafers, the workhorse of today’s solar panels. If all goes well, the new method could cut the cost of solar power by more than 20 percent in the next few years.
“This humble wafer will allow solar to be as cheap as coal and will drastically change the way we consume energy,” says Frank van Mierlo, CEO of 1366 Technologies, the company behind the new method of wafer fabrication.
Secret rooms or not, these are exciting times in the world of renewable energy. Thanks to technological advances and a ramp-up in production over the decade, grid parity — the point at which sources of renewable energy such as solar and wind cost the same as electricity derived from burning fossil fuels — is quickly approaching. In some cases it has already been achieved, and additional innovations waiting in the wings hold huge promise for driving costs even lower, ushering in an entirely new era for renewables.Solar Surprise
In January 2015, Saudi Arabian company ACWA Power surprised industry analysts when it won a bid to build a 200-megawatt solar power plant in Dubai that will be able to produce electricity for 6 cents per kilowatt-hour. The price was less than the cost of electricity from natural gas or coal power plants, a first for a solar installation. Electricity from new natural gas and coal plants would cost an estimated 6.4 cents and 9.6 cents per kilowatt-hour, respectively, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency.
Technological advances, including photovoltaics that can convert higher percentages of sunlight into energy, have made solar panels more efficient. At the same time economies of scale have driven down their costs.
For much of the early 2000s, the price of a solar panel or module hovered around $4 per watt. At the time Martin Green, one of the world’s leading photovoltaic researchers, calculated the cost of every component, including the polycrystalline silicon ingots used in making silicon wafers, the protective glass on the outside of the module, and the silver used in the module’s wiring. Green famously declared that so long as we rely on crystalline silicon for solar power, the price would likely never drop below $1/watt.
“There is a tenth of a percent of an efficiency gain here and cost reductions there that have added up to make solar very competitive.” — Mark BarineauThe future, Green and nearly everyone else in the field believed, was with thin films, solar modules that relied on materials other than silicon that required a fraction of the raw materials.
Then, from 2007 to 2014, the price of crystalline silicon modules dropped from $4 per watt to $0.50 per watt, all but ending the development of thin films.
The dramatic reduction in cost came from a wide number of incremental gains, says Mark Barineau, a solar analyst with Lux Research. Factors include a new, low-cost process for making polycrystalline silicon; thinner silicon wafers; thinner wires on the front of the module that block less sunlight and use less silver; less-expensive plastics instead of glass; and greater automation in manufacturing.
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