Good and Bad of Solar Power

The concept of using solar power as an alternative to traditional sources of energy that are known to cause pollution is very appealing, but the low price of oil coupled with the generally high costs of developing and implementing new technology have stifled widespread embracement of solar power here in the United States as well as many other parts of the world. Currently, solar power costs between 25 to 50 cents per kilowatt hour, which is as much as five times greater than the cost of the more common fossil fuel-based electricity. Add in the reality of diminishing supplies of polysilicon, the element found in conventional photovoltaic cells, and an even greater problem is realized.

According to the president and CEO of Sun Light and Power, Gary Gerber, tax credits to encourage solar development all but disappeared in the early 1980s after Ronald Reagan replaced Jimmy Carter as the President of the United States. Gerber says that after Reagan moved into the White House, he removed all of the solar collectors from the roof that Jimmy Carter had previously had installed. This pivotal move played a major role in the decline of the solar development industry.

Under the Clinton administration, federal spending towards solar energy development picked up again in the 90s, but then began to decline again after George W. Bush came into office. However, due to increasing climate changes becoming more and more difficult to ignore and awareness spreading among the American people, as well as record high oil prices, the Bush administration has been forced to reevaluate its official stance on alternative energy sources like solar. The White House proposed budgeting $148 million to further research and develop solar power in 2007, an increase of nearly 80% of what was invested into it in 2006.

Enterprising engineers are constantly working ward to drive down the costs of solar power, and believe that it will reach a point of price-competitiveness with traditional fossil fuels within the next 20 years. One company making significant progress is California-based Nanosolar, which effectively replaces the silicon that is used to absorb sunlight, and then converts it into electricity using a thin film of copper, indium, gallium, and selenium, also known simply as CIGS.

Nonosolar’s founder and CEO Martin Roscheisen says that CIGS-based cells are more versatile and durable, making them ideal to install in a broad range of applications. Roscheisen also expects that his company will be able to develop a 400-megawatt electricity plant for a fraction of the cost of a silicon-based plant of roughly the same output. In addition to Nanosolar, New York’s DayStar Technologies and California’s Miasolé are gaining attention for their work with CIGS-based solar cells.

Some companies, such as Konarka in Massachusetts, are developing a different type of solar power innovation known as the “spray-on” cell. Similar to paint, the composite can be applied to other materials, where it can then absorb the sun’s infrared rays and convert them into power for electronics such as cellular phones and other wireless devices that normally depend on batteries. Some analysts have speculated that this system could potentially become 5 times more efficient than the photovoltaic method that is the current standard.