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SOLAR PRODUCTS COMING OF AGE

Can be a contender

According to green-eyeshade analysts, $3 per watt is the figure at whichPV becomes "competitive". Translated: at three bucks per watt it will be just as cheap to mount a PV panel on your roof as to deliver juice through the wires. Subsidies could become irrelevant and PV will be competitive with fossil fuels on price alone even ignoring its phenomenal environmental advantages.

How close are we? John Thornton, leader of PV applications at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, calls $3 per watt by 2002 "a realistic number. Many things have to happen .. but technically it's possible."

In other words, the solar millennium could arrive shortly after the chronological one. Within five years, it will be just as cheap (in sunny locations) to use solar power as conventional electricity. Yet experts warn that capacity will be unable to meet demand.

And $3 per watt is not magic. As mass-production improves, PV's will increasingly be made with techniques of the glass and plastics industries. John Bigger of the Utility Photovoltaic Group says $1 per watt is a reasonable price projection at some point after 2010.

Meanwhile, another form of solar electricity is perking in the Mojave Desert, where an experimental plant concentrates solar energy and heats salt, which boils water and drives a turbine. By storing hot salt, the experimental "Desert Two" plant is cranking its generators 24 hours a day.

Although deregulation is refocusing electric utilities on cheapest-source power at the expense of conservation and renewables, it could also give consumers more choice in suppliers, which could be a boon for "green" power. In fact, consumers are already voting with their pocketbooks: When SMUD recruited volunteers for the "privilege" of paying extra for solar electricity, more than 2,000 people applied for 100 slots in the program.

Behind closed doors?

If a revolution is sweeping the energy sector, you could be excused for not knowing. In all the discussions of greenhouse warming, solar energy is mentioned more as a joke than a solution. Even many former advocates are largely silent, burned out by premature expectations for a technology that was not too good to be true, but was too good to be true tomorrow.

Looking back, it's understandable that a new technology developed for "damn-the-cost" satellites would not be affordable for many years on the ground. But those years are mainly past. As the world considers how to deal with climate change, "solar" should be considered a solution, not a joke.

Sure, solar will continue thriving based largely on its free-market virtues and will eventually compete head to head with planet-warming fossil fuels.

But the market is ignorant of the impending calamity of global warming, and for our sakes, solar could use some help. I get a cold feeling from the Clinton Administration's miserly $60-million subsidy for solar research and development. It wouldn't cost much to accelerate the solar millennium, if only we recognized that this clean technology is finally ready for real action.

Written by: David Tenenbaum, the feature writer at The Why Files. Let us know what you think: San Diego Earth Times


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