Whatever happened to affordable solar electrical power?

In the 80’s and early 90’s there seemed to be several stories in Popular Science and similar magazines about how new technologies (then) would allow the creation of solar cell films and grids, that would be so inexpensive that solar power would finally be an economically practical substitute for coal and gas. It seems (perhaps erroneously) that there have not been any significant breakthroughs in solar cell technology and manufacturing for almost 10-15 years now.

Is there stuff going on in the background that’s ready to pop or is solar cell technology about as tweaked as it can be using currently available materials?

Unfortunately, solar will not be competitive with coal anytime soon - probably not in the next 50 years or so (IMO). Solar just simply isn’t that efficient, cost effective, and great to use. it also produces a buttload of pollution in the manufacturing process, and with the storage batteries.

Mainstream magazines such as PS, PM, and especially newsprint, often exaggerate these things to ridiculous extremes, often basing entire issues on one man’s research that has neither been peer-reviewed or reproduced. Not that PS and PM aren’t good magazines overall, but sometimes an occasional “questionable” article comes in.

Which is too bad, because I really was rooting for solar power.

There’s just far too large a difference in busbar cost per MW between solar and coal, or even gas.

Read some Popular Science from the 60’s. Now that is a laugh!!

As for the OP. I have solar power on my flying car, don’t you?

One of the first acts of the Reagan Administration was to scuttle research into alternative energy and to wreck the tax credit program to encourage same.

Yeah, sure, let’s blame it on Reagan. <<sigh>>

I’m with Anthracite

The fact is solar is not what some ignorant greenies would like. Photovoltaic is very inefficient and expensive.

Even solar panels for hot water, which are way simpler and more efficient, are not competitive with gas for heating. I know it. My house has those panels and I did a detailed study. The only reason the panels were installed in the first place was to take advantage of the government subsidies but that is a feel good distortion of the market to please those who know little to nothing and read too much Popular Science.

As Anthracite says, maybe in 50 years, but not now.

Sailor said:
"Even solar panels for hot water, which are way simpler and more efficient, are not competitive with gas for heating."

Are you talking about the “break even time” where the cost of installation is paid for by the gas saved? What sort of numbers did you come up with?

      • By solar cells if you mean photovoltaic cells, then to put it simply, there ain’t all that much power in sunlight to get. - The easiest way by far to ‘create’ energy is to burn a fuel. - MC

Solar energy is primarily used for the following:

  1. Fun.
  2. To power small, frugal devices such as calculators and watches.
  3. To provide actual power in remote parts of the world where no power grid (or other utilities) is available.
  4. To power satellites, space probes, and space stations.

Contrary to what many environmentalists and starry-eyed hippies claim, solar energy is NOT a viable off-grid energy source for homes and businesses (unless, of course, there is no power grid). It is horribly inefficient, and can’t even begin to compete with your local power company. (Not ONE net watt has ever been produced by a PV cell.)

Read these for more info:



I’m all for alternative energy sources, but solar power isn’t the solution. Photovoltaic cells have a horrible efficiency – less than ten percent, even worse than a gasoline engine. People have been trying to improve them, but I’m not aware of significant advances (ie, more than a percent or two increase). The most realistic alternative power source is fermenting organic waste into alcohol. It still needs development, but there have been alot of promising advances in this area, and several companies have shown interest in developing such technology.

Matt, I posted some info a couple of months ago here. I’ll be glad to expand if you have further questions.

The fact is that that having solar panels to heat water is a PITA. The system needs maintenance which costs more than any savings you achieve. When it is cloudy it does not heat. When you are away it overheats as the heat is not being used. And I am really not saving much of anything.

And the panels themselves are not nessesarily "safe’ for the environment. We really do not know what will happen if we change the Albedo of a large amount of area. TAANSTAFL

I take it you are including the energy used in manufacture?

      • Some years ago I read that it takes a photovoltaic cell 10.5 years to recover the energy that went into its manufacture.
  • MC

Galen didn’t blame Reagan. Just pointed out a fact (assuming it’s true…I hadn’t heard that, but I heard that Reagan did take down the solar panels at the White House that were put up under Carter’s administration).

Anyway, it’s interesting to see these responses. So what types of efficiency improvements are needed? (i.e., where should the research be conducted?)

To crafter_man’s list I would add “remote units”…I see solar used a lot for things like remote monitoring stations, highway marquees, etc.

I think solar power has a valid place, but it’s no cure-all.

The cause of solar power is not helped when governments undermine any of the momentum gained so far.

The Australian government clearly dropped the ball at the Kyoto Earth summit when it argued for an increase!!! in greenhouse gas emissions. This, from a country that is ideally placed to lead the world in solar technology research!

If our elected leaders lack the vision and courage to face the inevitable, thanks to bulldozer-like lobbying from industry and big business, what hope do the rest of us have?

Clearly, we are going to have to develop solar technology eventually. The chances of finding another large-scale clean source of energy are not great, hence solar power will need to be complimented by other clean sources, such as wind, hydro and geothermal.

Nuclear fission is not the answer. From the moment you dig the uranium out of the ground, there is a problem in containing radioactivity. The waste products need hundreds of thousands of years to decay to a “safe” level - longer than homo sapiens has walked upon the Earth.

And nuclear fusion remains a science fiction pipe dream - great in theory, but the practicalities of sustainability and safe containment won’t be solved in my life time.

Solar is the best option we have at this time.

Although I don’t support our position at Kyoto, this is an oversimplication on two counts:

First, the Oz government’s position was that an agreement which did not include the developing world was at best pointless at and worst had the potential to prevent effective greenhouse policy.

Secondly, whilst we have lots of sun, we also have lots of energy intensive exports.

Regarding the question at hand, the profitability of solar power and research into same depends a fair bit on other energy sources being correctly priced (taking into acount all its effects).

If as many people suppose there are serious unpriced costs involved with use of fossil fuels, efficient pricing would make the use of and research into solar power much more promising.


sometimes you need to set the example, a valid purpose, IMO

All these threads seem to be based on a common agreement that there has to be a solution which will allow an unlimited number of billions of people to live on this planet and not affect it much.

I just do not agree with this premise and I think the best way to save energy and dimish pollution is to stop making babies.

Anybody remember the cartoon “Battle of the Planets”? The rocketship on that show had this solar-powered death ray. And damned if every time they used it, it was a partly cloudy day, so it didn’t work so hot.

Of course you are correct that population size is a key factor. But a population of any size can strive to improve efficiencies.