SOLAR PRODUCTS COMING OF AGE
SOLAR PRODUCTS COMING OF AGE
Photovoltaics are finally set to contribute a meaningful amount of electricity. You do remember PV, don't you? The solar electricity source that, during the energy crises of the 1970s, promised to save the world from fossil fuels. These de-centralized power generators would democratize energy, cut pollution, slow strip-mining and reduce oil spills.
Long before we began dreading greenhouse warming, these advantages made PV the holy grail of environmentalists. Yet there was a major problem: PVs were expensive.
Yes, we were told, the price would drop eventually. But eventually never seemed to arrive, and no amount of support from enthusiastic environmentalists could give PVs a real role in real-world energy production.
Sure, PV's made sense for satellites, the Australian outback, and elsewhere beyond the reach of power lines. But by 1995, all solar sources combined contributed only 0.003 percent to the US electricity supply. Eventually, the stubborn price problem caused many PV champions to lose interest and focus on conservation instead.
Yet behind our backs (aided by $1.5 billion in federal subsidies over the past 25 years), PV is making a big comeback. Prices have fallen by a factor of 100 since 1972. Manufacturing costs are still dropping and efficiencies are still rising. Some electric utilities have even lost their fear of PV, and are talking, in their gray-suited way, about an "appropriate mix" of energy supplies.
In other words, with little notice from environmentalists, a real industry has arisen: Solar shingles, which keep out rain and produce electricity, reached the market this year. So did other thin-film solar panels. This long-heralded, cut-rate technology avoids the need for expensive crystalline silicon.
U.S. solar power manufacturers had record sales of $850-million in 1996, supplying 39 percent of world PV output. Globally, PV output is growing 15 percent per year, with a doubling time of less than five years. PV manufacturers have waiting lists of six months or more and are frantically building capacity.
While demand is particularly heavy in less-developed countries, where the electric infrastructure is weak or nonexistent, one of the most promising developments is in California. Last May, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) announced that it would spend $22-million on enough equipment to generate 10 million watts of electricity.
The largest contract in PV history will supply only 3,000 customers during the day (which is when the utility's demand peaks). But it should give manufacturers significant economies of scale. So over the five years of the project, the installed prices is slated to drop from $5 per watt in 1998 to $3 per watt by 2002.
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Written by: David Tenenbaum
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