In Brief

Solar power will be 'as cheap as coal' amid new advances

New era for renewables predicted, as solar panel production, technology and efficiency improves

Technological advances in the way solar panel components are being produced have prompted predictions that solar power will soon be as cheap as coal.

The price of crystalline silicon modules has fallen from $4 per watt in 2007 to $0.50 per watt in 2014 following new, low-cost production processes.

1366 Technologies, a company based in Massachusetts, claims that its new method of silicon wafer production can reduce costs further.

The silicon wafers behind existing solar panels are cut from large blocks of polycrystalline silicon – a process that is "extremely inefficient, turning as much as half of the initial ingot into sawdust", says Phil McKenna at environmental website Ensia.

1366, which hopes to begin mass production next year, instead melts the silicon and recasts it into thin wafers, cutting the overall cost of a crystalline silicon module by 20 per cent.

Frank van Mierlo, CEO of 1366, says his "humble wafer will allow solar to be as cheap as coal and will drastically change the way we consume energy".

Martin Green, a leading photovoltaic researcher, predicts that the cost will drop to $0.25 per watt over the next decade if other semi-conducting materials can be stacked on top of existing solar cells to convert a wider spectrum of sunlight into electricity.

"If you can stack something on top of a silicon wafer it will be pretty much unbeatable," he says.

Meanwhile, thin films – an alternative to crystalline silicon – are predicted to experience a "renaissance". One company, First Solar, says it can manufacture thin-film solar modules for less than $0.40 per watt and anticipates further price reductions in the coming years.

"Thanks to technological advances and a ramp-up in production over the decade, grid parity—the point at which sources of renewable energy such as solar and wind cost the same as electricity derived from burning fossil fuels—is quickly approaching," says Ensia's McKenna.

"In some cases it has already been achieved, and additional innovations waiting in the wings hold huge promise for driving costs even lower, ushering in an entirely new era for renewables."

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