Solar Power-Will New Technology Provide a Breakthrough?

Plentiful shale gas changes the economics around electricity production. Emerson’s Douglas Morris, a member of the alternative energy industry team, explores recent advancements in solar power technology in light of these economics.

Emerson's Douglas MorrisEver bring up the topic of solar power at a dinner party? I’m enough of a geek to admit that I’ve had occasion to start such a discussion. You’d think that most people would look at their watch or feign sudden sickness; rather I’ve found that most are generally interested in talking about solar and renewable power in general.

In that light, I’m going to provide you with some fodder for your next party. The MIT Technology Review recently published an article that highlights the company Silevo, and their low cost breakthrough for solar photovoltaic (PV) panels. Hit the Silevo link to learn all about the innovative “tunneling junction” design and what this means (hint: the secret to having “geek cred” at a dinner party is to never mention tunneling junction).

To me, the interesting part of their design is one adopted years ago by DCS manufacturers like Emerson which used a commercial, off the shelf approach to technology. By using existing manufacturing equipment and processes, Silevo can lower PV production costs. The company claims to be near cost parity with Chinese manufacturers, while having higher energy conversion efficiencies.

Will this lower cost, higher efficiency approach lead to the new wave of solar development? This is where the dinner party discussion will get interesting. Regardless of the PV cost, solar faces an uphill climb to even approach electricity cost parity, particularly without subsidy. When a solar plant is constructed, the power company is required to supply an equal amount of fossil backup so it can provide power when the sun doesn’t shine. Wind, by the way, requires the same backup.

Source: MIT’s Technology Review article – King Natural Gas

With natural gas prices at historic lows and an ample supply of gas for the foreseeable future, it’s going to be a challenging environment for large-scale adoption of solar. That being said, continued developments which reduce capital costs, like those made by Silevo, will make it more palatable for power producers to mix solar into their generation portfolios.

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