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EXPERTS SEE
SOLAR POWER COMPETITIVE
IN NEXT DECADE

Solar energy will become economically competitive in the next decade or so and supply a significant amount of the world's power after 2020, industry experts told a conference.

Experts expressed cautious optimism at the Solar Power 2004 conference amid record oil prices and the possibility of a push for solar and other sources of renewable energy from the White House if Democrat John Kerry is elected. "We really have not had leadership on a federal level in 20 years, since Jimmy Carter," said Thomas Leyden, vice president of PowerLight, which manufactures large solar electric systems. "This technology is sound, it's proven. It's now just a question of deployment."

Even with oil prices at about $53 a barrel, solar energy remains more expensive than conventional power and has needed large subsidies to compete. It now provides a tiny fraction of electricity, which relies mostly on fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas.

At present, solar power costs are about double the price of power generated by other energy sources, but that will change over time, said Leyden. "The two lines will meet and we believe they will meet within the next 10 years," he said in an interview.

Such a forecast expects the future price of fossil fuels to rise as well as an eventual economy of scale for solar technology as it becomes more widespread.

Takashi Tomita, the general manager of the solar systems group for Sharp (6753.T: Quote, Profile, Research) , said he expected solar power to become price competitive between 2010 and 2020 and then contribute a significant amount of the world's energy between 2020 and 2040.

Industry groups say solar power is now a $7 billion industry. So far, Japan has led the way in solar energy expansion, followed by Germany.

HOMES SLOW TO GO SOLAR

Small firms play a big role in installing private home systems, which often cost $40,000 and up, experts said.

Darryl Conklin, president of Renewable Technologies Inc. in Sutter Creek, California, said he started the firm after his local utility PG&E (PCG.N: Quote, Profile, Research) wanted $240,000 to connect his remote home to the power grid. He now equips hundreds of homes a year, but said selling to private householders was an uphill battle. "As an industry we have not been able to outreach to the consumer in a proper fashion," he said.

Several firms see economic opportunity in smaller flexible light cells. Lowell, Massachusetts-based Konarka has raised $32.5 million in funding to market its technology to integrate directly into house roof tiles, portable music devices and other objects. Among its partners is the U.S. military, which is putting solar energy cells on tents.

Written by: Adam Tanner, Planet Ark


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