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From: Steve Stelzer [mailto:steve@...]
Sent: Tuesday, September 04, 2001 9:41 AM
Subject: [hreg] Interesting article
Solar power's day not at hand yet, but on far horizon
By SCOTT BURNS
Universal Press Syndicate
GOLDEN, Colo. -- When Rear Admiral Richard H. Truly was appointed director
of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory here, the former astronaut was
quick to gather his staff and tour the facilities. During the tour he went
to a large photovoltaic panel and observed that he had a special affection
for them. They had kept him alive in space for weeks, he explained.
"They've kept me alive, too," said Lawrence L. Kazmerski, a Ph.D. whose
quirky sense of humor is matched only by his ties.
"They've delivered my paycheck for years," he said, referring to the
solar-powered satellite links that move money all around the world.
Kazmerski, director of the National Center for Photovoltaics here, told me
that story as we sat in his office. "This is a great time for photovoltaics,
or PV, in the United States. It couldn't be any better. Because of
California, manufacturers can't ship enough.
"In the last three years we've seen a real shift in where PV is used. Last
year 50 percent of shipments went to applications tied into the grid. That's
what the trend is -- away from off-grid applications and onto the power
I asked what potential he saw for solar power.
"A cost of $2 to $3 a watt in the next 10 years. We don't have the capacity
now. We still have some technology development to do. But there should be a
huge payoff by 2020."
Why that long?
"Because it will take that long. Right now, in California, PV generation is
price competitive in certain areas."
It still has a long way to go, however, before it is a real competitor with
Wind power, in contrast, is highly competitive and popular; witness the
offer of small wind turbines on Target's Web site at www.target.com.
Significantly, Kazmerski's primary concern wasn't about the ultimate
development of solar power. It was about whether the United States would
have a primary role since Europe and Japan were investing more in research
and development, commercialization and subsidies.
In fact, producing photovoltaic cells in volume will be a major feat.
"There's no doubt that it works," Ken Zweibel told me. Zweibel is the
manager of the NREL's Thin Film Partnership, a group of companies doing
thin-film research and development work for the laboratory. "The thing we
have to do is to bring the cost down and to raise the efficiency. When we
started, it cost $100 a watt. Our goal is to get it down to 50 cents a
Getting that economy won't be easy. While Intel can sell 1 square centimeter
of semiconductor chip for hundreds of dollars, competitive photovoltaic
cells will have to be produced at the price of good carpeting: a low cost
per square yard, not a high cost per square centimeter. Getting there will
require very large production volumes.
We can get some idea of what might be called the Practicality Gap by
comparing current household spending for electric power to the installed
cost of current photovoltaic systems. According to the Statistical Abstract
of the United States, a typical household uses about 10,000 kilowatt hours a
year, or 833 kwh per month. With a range of utility rates between 7 cents
and 10 cents a kilowatt-hour, that equates to monthly bills of $58 to $83.
That, in turn, would require an annuity investment of $7,500 to $10,700 to
provide the income for 20 years, if the money earns 7 percent.
Comparative calculations need to be made this way because when you install a
photovoltaic system you are, in effect, buying a "solar annuity" of electric
power with a lump-sum investment.
Using installation cost figures from Home Power magazine, a comparable
photovoltaic investment would require over $40,000. So installed solar
system costs will have to decline roughly 75 percent before solar power
becomes a financially qualified competitor.
You can, of course, reduce the size and cost of the installed system by
minimizing your home power consumption with efficient appliances, efficient
light bulbs, skylights, etc.
But it will still cost about four times as much to displace the last
kilowatt-hours of conventional power.
Does the difference matter?
To most people, yes. But many consumers are jumping the Practicality Gap.
You can learn more at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's Web site at
Questions about personal finance and investments may be sent to Scott Burns,
P.O. Box 655237, Dallas 75265; e-mail can be sent to scott@...
Burns' Web page is www.scottburns.com
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