The Reality of Solar Panels at 50% Cost

Last week, residents in the Baltimore-Washington area experienced their 42nd day of 90+ degree temperatures this year. Wouldn’t it be nice to capture more of that intense sunlight and convert it into electricity?

Modern photovoltaic cells (more commonly known as solar panels) were invented in the 1950s at Bell Laboratories. But despite the passage of over fifty years, solar energy’s full potential has yet to be tapped due in part to the cost of actually putting the pieces of a solar panel together — installing solar panels still far exceeds the cost of using traditional fossil fuels like coal and natural gas.

Today, solar panels are made from flat wafers of silicon, an abundant, inexpensive material commonly found as sand on the beach (silicon dioxide).

Silicon acts as a semiconductor when light forces electrons through it, creating electricity. Currently, the silicon wafers used in solar panels are created by producing large silicon blocks, which are then sawed into wafers. Much of the silicon is lost in this sawing process as “sawdust.” Then, after sawing, the wafers require an expensive and laborious chemical process to make them smooth.

As you can imagine, the manufacturing costs associated with making the silicon wafers can be prohibitively high. That’s where 1366 Technologies, the recipient of $4 million of ARPA-E funding, comes in:

1366 Technologies is developing a novel manufacturing process that creates silicon wafers directly from molten silicon, without all the costly intermediary steps.

Moreover, 1366 Technologies’ silicon wafers can be made thinner than current wafers, performing at least as well as today’s technology but at significantly lower cost.

Solar electricity currently costs at least $4/watt fully installed – 1366 Technologies hopes to bring this cost down to under $2/watt fully installed, a reduction in cost by more than 50 percent. This single innovation could bring the cost of solar electricity down to between the costs of coal and natural gas.

The U.S. currently obtains less than 1 percent of its electricity from solar energy. If 1366 Technologies’ process is successful, solar energy could finally become cost competitive with fossil sources, and solar energy could provide a major share of our electricity.

Additionally, this sort of breakthrough would invigorate the U.S. solar industry, generating many new jobs and allowing the U.S. to recapture market share from our overseas competitors. Now, wouldn’t that make the summer sun more bearable?

This isn’t the only innovative technology ARPA-E is proud of.

by Dr. Arun Majumdar, Arun Majumdar is the Director for the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy.