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Tech research: Solar power getting less expensive

December 28, 2011
By KURT HAUGLIE , Houghton Daily Mining Gazette

HOUGHTON - Joshua Pearce wants to change the perception of solar power as a relatively expensive energy source used only in remote locations or by large utility companies, and hopes a recent analysis on the topic he was part of will help dispel that perception.

Pearce, who is an associate professor of electrical engineering and materials science at Michigan Technological University, said the analysis, "A Review of Solar Photovoltaic Levelized Cost of Electricity," in the December issue of the science publication Renewable & Sustainable Energy Reviews, was begun by himself and colleagues at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, and finished after he started at Tech this past summer.

"We had the study mostly done at Queen's," he said. "The journal it's in only prints invited articles."

The analysis printed in the magazine was a sort of extension of other work he and his Queen's University colleagues had done, Pearce said.

"My group had done a lot of research on solar power for the Canadian government," he said.

What that earlier research showed, Pearce said, was that costs for solar power have been dropping, largely due to better solar panel materials.

"We've made very significant progress on that," he said.

Although the individual cells in most solar panels are still crystal based, Pearce said the materials they're set in are better than the early days of solar panel technology in the 1970s. In the past, water would get into panels, leading to damage of the cells and panels and degradation of power output.

"Now, we have much better polymer backing," he said.

Many panels have 25-year warranties, Pearce said. Annual degradation of power from a quality panel is 0.1 to 0.2 percent, rather than the previously assumed level of 1 percent or greater.

A relatively new technology involves the production of large sheets of material on which cells are placed in scribes engraved with lasers, Pearce said. Those are cheaper, but generally not as efficient as panels with individual crystal or polycrystal cells embedded in a polymer field.

The cost of solar panels dropped 70 percent since 2009, Pearce said.

After the burst of use of solar power in the 1970s, Pearce said there was a lull, which has since turned around.

"We're back with industry support," he said.

Pearce said there are about 100,000 workers in the solar-power industry, now, compared to about 80,000 workers in the coal industry five years ago.

Costs for start-up for solar power are going to vary based on the system used, Pearce said, but panels can be purchased for about $2,000 each.

"A system of a few thousand dollars is in the reach of a typical middle class family," he said.

Panels with 50-year life expectancy aren't very far away, Pearce said.

"We're getting pretty close, now," he said.

Although battery costs are declining, also, Pearce said the trend by solar-power users is to connect to their local electrical grid, eliminating the need for batteries and lowering the cost of the system.

Depending on variables, including location and type of system, Pearce said the cost for electricity is going to be attractive to many people.

"Solar is already competitive or better than conventional fossil fuels," he said. "We're going down (in cost) and we're only going to continue to go down."

Pearce said factors in the cost per watt of solar power include location, efficiency of systems, ability to connect to an electrical grid, government tax incentives and the willingness of lending institutions to fund installations of solar systems.

Getting lenders to accept solar power is going to be extremely important to its growth, Pearce said, which is one of the effects he'd like to see from the recently-published analysis.

"Financing matters," he said.

Pearce said some recent years have shown a 100 percent increase in the use of solar power all over the world.

"It's massively increasing," he said.

Those uses include on houses, cottages and even big-box retailers.

Growth in the use of solar power should continue to increase, also, Pearce said.

"I'm very optimistic," he said. "I think we're going to see massive growth."

 
 

 

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