Solar Energy Breakthrough Could Drop Consumer Price

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You can put a solar panel on the roof of your house, but it won't be efficient unless you're willing to pay more. But a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley says that may be a thing of the past.

Ali Javey, a Berkeley professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences, reports finding a far less expensive way to make more powerful semiconductors, which reduces the cost of high-efficiency solar cells, perhaps to the cost level of conventional solar cells.

While solar energy has been attractive as a clean and renewable source of power, it's not economically competitive with fossil fuels. Javey says his research could become a "game changer" in this equation.

More efficient solar cells means fewer are needed. Fewer cells means lower cost per solar panel and for installation. And cutting the costs of the cells' constituent materials would lower those costs even more. The cells Javey is proposing would have an efficiency of about 25 percent, compared with the 18 percent efficiency in conventional low-efficiency solar cells.

A preliminary study of Javey's research by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory indicates that the materials he's using could lead to high-efficiency solar cells that cost about the same as conventional cells.

High-efficiency solar cells are currently made from semiconductors in expensive crystal form. These crystals are exposed to certain vapors that generate the thin film that coats solar cells. Javey has sidestepped the expensive crystals and instead creates the films using materials that are far less expensive: a sheet of metal or even glass.

He reports that he's even managed to use a less expensive vapor to create the film, and uses less of this cheaper vapor by reducing waste.

As promising as the new technology is, it's still in its very early stages, and Javey says he has far more work to do to produce solar cells at an industrial level.

Jessica Adams, a senior engineer at Microlink Devices, which makes high-efficiency solar cells, agrees that a commercial product won't be available for some time, but says Javey's research has "demonstrated a way that we may be able to make solar cells out of indium phosphide relatively cheaply, with the potential to get very high efficiency."

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  • Report this Comment On June 11, 2014, at 11:58 AM, BloviationNation wrote:

    Be careful. Once again they're touting efficiency numbers like 18% and 25%. This is for the unglazed cell. The final application will typically require some sort of glazing (glass cover). The best glass has at best roughly 90% transmittance. With glazing you can expect to lose up to 5% or more of that efficiency.

  • Report this Comment On June 11, 2014, at 1:15 PM, reddler wrote:

    Will the solar system on a house generate i20/240 volts, normal voltage required to run household electrical equipment?

  • Report this Comment On June 11, 2014, at 1:38 PM, ronwiserinvestor wrote:

    Why wait for this technology to be developed when Hyper X high efficiency solar is already here at a price that much, much lower than even SolarCity's or SunPower's offerings?

    Hyper X Solar's N-Type, thin film passivated, tunneling junction architecture provides higher efficiency, a smaller footprint and a much lower cost which makes Hyper X solar's price/performance ratio hard to compete against when compared to conventional solar panels.

    Hyper X solar offers a better PTC to STC ratio "Real World" performance according to the California Energy Commission's performance rating listings than over 100 of SunPower's solar panel models.

    Hyper X solar also offers an incredible -0.27%/degree C temperature coefficient rating for better performance in hot/warm climates and best of all Hyper X solar systems are priced thousands less and even tens of thousands less on larger systems than a SunPower or SolarCity solar system.

  • Report this Comment On June 11, 2014, at 1:47 PM, speculawyer wrote:

    Efficiency is not all that important. You are paying $0 for the sunshine, so how much of it you waste doesn't matter that much. What is more important is the cost of the PV panels.

  • Report this Comment On June 11, 2014, at 1:53 PM, ronwiserinvestor wrote:

    @reddler Yes, all modern grid tie solar systems produce 240 volts that your home's electrical service panel will divide among your home's 12/240 volt loads.

  • Report this Comment On June 11, 2014, at 2:33 PM, gjsuhr wrote:

    Basic solar panels are already pretty cheap, on the order of $1 per watt....so a typical home might need $5-8,000 worth of panels to be fully independent.

    A bigger issue at the moment is the price of racks to hold the panels, inverters to change DC to AC and the installation costs to put all that together.

    I wouldn't complain about cheaper or more efficient cells, but they aren't the problem they were 10 - 15 years ago.

  • Report this Comment On June 11, 2014, at 6:57 PM, phillipzx3 wrote:

    "While solar energy has been attractive as a clean and renewable source of power, it's not economically competitive with fossil fuels"

    Sure it is....and once your investment is paid for, your energy is free. With fossil fuels you are forced to continually purchase a fuel source, while sunshine is free for the taking.

  • Report this Comment On June 11, 2014, at 8:20 PM, jerrycavender wrote:

    cut costs? so using robots to install? saw some prices that installations cost 3x more then the cells

  • Report this Comment On June 12, 2014, at 2:04 AM, LeakyWallet wrote:

    Remember the fossil fuels have ongoing legacy tax breaks out the ying yang - far beyond the breaks solar currently enjoys.

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