Low Prices for Solar Power Bring It Within Popular Reach

Monday, November 7, 2011

image With climate change bringing unprecedented storms to many sections of the country, a lot of homeowners are probably dreaming of installing their own electric power systems as they sit waiting for the restoration of their electricity at the end of downed power lines. Their timing is not far off: solar power is moving into their economic reach.

Despite the best efforts of the coal, oil and gas companies to shove the possibility of solar power into the latter half of this century, the price-per-watt of solar is falling so fast that it will soon catch up with fossil-fuel generated electricity. Costing some $265 per watt when solar panels were first used on early satellites, the price is recently down to $2 per watt — and falling. Considering that it was around $8 per watt as recently as 2007, the day when choosing a solar system over other alternatives to power your home is a no-brainer is probably only a couple of years away.

Part of the reason are new technological developments in the field, like the optical cavity furnace that will cut the price of producing the silicon materials that make up solar panels. There are new thin-film solar materials that can be produced in tough, flexible sheets instead of delicate panels that must be enclosed in glass, making it possible to create such items as solar roof shingles. There are new modular solar panel mounting systems that are cheaper to produce and much easier to mount on roofs, cutting installations costs.

Of course, the real savings will be environmental and human. These will include the benefits from tons of carbon that will remain sequestered in the earth instead of being launched into the atmosphere. And in fact, most of the savings will be negative: oil not spilled; water not polluted by leaking hydrofracking fluids; or coal not mined, transported and burned. The savings will be in illnesses not caused by dirty water and air. Perhaps the greatest savings will be from the cost of wars not fought over land bearing oil resources.

The mineral of which most solar materials are made is silicon, which is one of the most plentiful minerals on earth, so that no one needs to fight anyone else to get enough of it and no one can corner its market. Although most homeowners are likely to continue to use the common electric grid as backup, the ability to fall back on your own private solar powered electricity, to go off the grid that connects you to the rest of the world, creates other possibilities both personal and political. Whether a significant number of people will take them up, and what the consequences might be, is hidden in the future.

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