(Mods – This topic seems like it belongs halfway between Great Debates and General Questions. Please move it if you feel it appropriate.)
Recently on CNN I saw this article about new solar energy technology. I’m no expert, but this seems like an extremely important announcement. If five years from now we can get electricity from solar panels as cheaply as from oil or gas, shouldn’t that be Big Font Headline News™?
And this isn’t some little no-name engineering outfit making the claim. It’s STMicroelectronics, a major semiconductor company with over 6 billion dollars in annual revenues.
My great debate topic: Has this announcement been strangely underreported, or is it not really newsworthy at this early date?
My general question (for someone more knowledgeable about energy production): How big a deal is this really? What are the likely ramifications of this technology if it proves feasible?
True. What set this one apart for me was that, unlike most of the “whiz-bang” claims, this one came from a large, well-established company, and they’re talking the next couple of years rather than the usual decade-or-more away.
Oh, I don’t think there’s any sort of wacky conspiracy. I’m just wondering why a potentially huge energy development announced by a gigantic Eurpoean semiconductor company isn’t getting more press. Is it a bigger deal in Europe, or is it just going under everyone’s radar for now?
Seriously, however, I was going to post a thread about this on my Board, but ran out of time earlier. I thought the announcement was very interesting, but I have seen other similar announcements of “cheapening” the base material cost in the past, very few of which have ever made it to the trial stage.
I’m a little unclear on the “$/produced Watt” they mention - I guess they mean capital cost of the cell over the output of the cell? Because that’s not really a good set of units to make a comparison on. This quote from the article:
is misleading, as it’s a measure of power, not energy.
I’m not slagging on the solar cells, just saying they need to show the estimated (or best guess at) the actual energy costs. Comparing the manufacturing cost of the cells with the cost of capital construction with a coal plant is not fair.
And their comment on “oil and gas” is wrong too. Oil accounts for around 2% of the electrical production in the US. Mr. Coffa from the article may be a brilliant scientist, but if that quote is accurate I don’t think he knows enough about the US electrical generation system.
I want to know what the capital cost is, and the O&M cost (cleaning, replacement, forced and scheduled outages, MTBF, degredation of output over time, etc) is going to be, including the cost of the energy storage systems needed for off-light conditions.
But yes, in answer to the OP, I do think it might be under-reported. Science issues typically are, unless they involve health, sports, porn, or WMD, I guess.
Likely ramifications? It depends a lot on the stability and area-density of the cells. It’s all well and good if the cells are dirt-cheap, but if it takes 10,000 square feet to power your TV, you’re not much better off. If the cells are small enough and stable enough, then maybe you might see home applications first, followed by small businesses. The large-scale baseloaded grid of the US is unlikely to alter overnight even with a “miracle” solar cell.
I certainly hope for the best with these cells, but we’ll have to see next year, I think.
The problem with both wind and solar power is finding a place where rich liberals have not already despoiled the environment to put the panels or farms. There was another thread on that one (Cape Cod Piece?). Something like that?
It’s a good set of units for comparing to other solar cells, as they do in the article, though you’re right that it’s probably not so good for comparing to resources where the fuel actually costs money.
As I’m sure you know, if you knew the effective lifetime of the cell, you could convert it into cost per unit energy. For 40¢ per Watt, it’s 14¢ per kilowatt-hour, divided by its effective lifetime in years (this assumes 8 hours of useful sunlight a day). So a solar cell with a lifetime of 7 years would have a cost of 2¢ per kilowatt-hour.
It would seem to me that real-time photovoltaics ( at least during the day feeding directly into the recitifying system and the “grid” in question) would be extremely maintenance free. A self-cleaning feature for large scale arrays would be an excellent advance.
What do you pay a guy to walk around the array with a 16" squeegee cleaning off the bird mess??
I’m not sure that the fact of a big corporation announcing it should give it more credibility. How many startups did Microsoft strangle simply by announcing a that a competing product was in the works? STMicroelectronics might be a little positive in their announcement just to drum up business or cut off a competitor.
from STMs site http://www.st.com/stonline/press/news/year2003/t1355h.htm
"Catania, Italy, September 30, 2003 - STMicroelectronics (NYSE: STM), one of the world’s leading manufacturers of semiconductor devices, today released details of an advanced research program that it hopes will substantially reduce the cost of generating electricity from solar power. The research team, based in Catania and Naples, Italy, is focusing on applying ST’s expertise in nanotechnology to the development of new solar cell technologies that will eventually be able to compete commercially with conventional electricity generation methods such as burning fossil fuels or nuclear reactors. "
I know quite a bit about this area doing having done research in plastic solar cells a few years ago. STMs announcement looks only an intent to start a research program. The two technologies they are trying have been around for ten years and they work fairly well in the lab. However, solar light is very damaging to organic compounds (e.g see your curtains after 10 years). The big problems have been lifetimes, efficiencies, and solar spectrum capture.
My guess is that cheap solar cells are about 8 years away at the minimum. The CNN article looks total hype.