60 Years of Solar Cells

April 19, 2014

“Let it Shine” by Amory Lovins, via NewEnergyNews:

Bell executives presented the first practical solar cell to the world at a press conference on April 25, 1954.

At the time of Bell’s announcement in 1954, all the solar cells in the world delivered less than one watt. Today, more than 120 gigawatts of generating capacity of photovoltaics have been installed worldwide. This year not only marks the 60th anniversary of the silicon solar cell but also the beginning of reaching the Holy Grail solar scientists have only previously dreamt of before “ entering the Era of Grid Parity, where solar panels begin to generate power at costs equal to or less than electricity produced by fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

solarcell1

What does this mean? Simple! Massive amounts of cleanly produced electricity will become a reality in our lifetime.

In fact, on April 26, 1954, The New York Times noted on page one, that the Bell solar cell “may mark the beginning of a new era, leading eventually to the realization of one of mankind’s most cherished dreams“ – the harnessing of the almost limitless energy of the sun for the uses of civilization.  U.S. News and World Report came out with a story as full of hope as the Times piece with the title: Fuel Unlimited,” exclaiming that the silicon solar cells “…may provide more power than all the world’s coal, oil and uranium.¦Engineers are dreaming of silicon powerhouses. The future is limitless.”

On April 18, 2014, a formal celebration will take place in Palo Alto, CA to mark the milestone of 60 years of practical PV. Palo Alto is becoming a living demonstration that we’ve come a long way since that first Ferris wheel was lit up by solar technology in 1954, and that in fact, whole cities can be powered by solar and other renewables. The City of Palo Alto recently started covering its entire community’s power demand through renewable purchases and credits and is on track to procure 100% renewable power by 2017. Solar is expected to make up 18% of that portfolio.

GreenTechMedia:

Texas utility Austin Energy is going to be paying 5 cents per kilowatt-hour for solar power, and it could mean lower customer rates.

City-owned Austin Energy is about to sign a 25-year PPA with Sun Edison for 150 megawatts of solar power at “just below” 5 cents per kilowatt-hour. The power will come from two West Texas solar facilities, according to reports in the Austin American-Statesman. According to reports, around 30 proposals were at prices near SunEdison’s. Austin Energy has suggested that the PV deal will slightly lower rates for customers.

This is one of the lowest, if not the lowest, reported prices for contracted solar that we have seen. Last year, First Solar (FSLR) entered a 25-year PPA in New Mexico for 50 megawatts of solar power at 5.79 cents per kilowatt-hour. That number included a significant PTC from the state. The Macho Springs project, the Austin project and most solar projects of this nature rely on the 30 percent federal Investment Tax Credit.

Austin Energy’s net sub-five cent price does not include any state PTC, according to Monty Humble of energy development firm Brightman EnergyLLC. He said that the utility was “to be commended” for this solicitation. Humble added, “Based on our analysis, it can be done. There’s not a whole lot of profit in it, but it’s not a loss leader. It’s a legitimate bid.”

GTM Solar Analyst Cory Honeyman points out that “new PPAs signed in North Carolina fetched prices for less than 7 cents per kilowatt-hour” citing a report by the Charlotte Observer.Like Macho Springs, those projects could also take advantage of an in-state tax credit to make the economics work. Honeyman said that none of the projects in Georgia or North Carolina were larger than 20 megawatts, so 5 cents does seem like “an unprecedented low for large-scale projects.”

Bret Kadison, COO of Austin-based Brazos Resources, an energy investment firm, said this was “a highly competitive solicitation.” Although historically, “Texas hasn’t been a hotbed of solar, you’re starting to see that change. ERCOT needs the generation.”

He expects to see more solar activity “not just as a green source of energy, but as an affordable source of energy. Texas is seeing economic growth, but the power grid has not kept pace.” Kadison added, “When you think about the volatility of natural gas, a 25-year PPA starts to look pretty attractive.”

Kadison notes, “This is below the all-in cost of natural gas generation, even with low fuel prices and before factoring in commodity volatility and cost overruns.” He also points out that the original RFP was for 50 megawatts, but the utility ended up buying 150 megawatts “in a red state where hydrocarbons dominate the political landscape.” Kadison suggests that “one of the biggest cost reduction drivers that allowed solar to reach this parity came from the massive reduction in financing costs.”

The 5-cent price falls below Austin Energy’s estimates for natural gas at 7 cents, coal at 10 cents and nuclear at 13 cents. The utility points out that it approved a 16.5-cent price for the Webberville solar plant in 2009.

Austin Energy has a 35 percent renewable energy resource goal by 2016 and a solar goal of 200 megawatts by 2020. The utility is currently at about 25 percent, much of it made up by its 850 megawatts of wind.

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10 Responses to “60 Years of Solar Cells”


  1. And did you notice that Oklahoma republicans are preparing to levy a tax against solar users? There’s no good behavior republicans won’t try to suppress, apparently.

  2. redskylite Says:

    Applause to the Bell laboratories for their many achievements including that of the telephone and switchboards, the admirably robust computer operating system Unix, “C” language and development on solar panels .

    Strong start to 2014 by the U.S

    “Renewables = 92.1% of new US electricity capacity so far in 2014”

    http://www.ferc.gov/legal/staff-reports/2014/mar-infrastructure.pdf

    http://www.treehugger.com/renewable-energy/renewables-921-new-us-electricity-capacity-so-far-2014.html

  3. andrewfez Says:

    It was Exxon that took it to the next level in their New Jersey Lab, dropping the price from $100/W to $10/W. From Wiki (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_cell#Berman.27s_price_reductions):

    In the late 1960s, Elliot Berman was investigating organic solar cells. He was introduced to a team at Exxon who were looking for projects 30 years in the future. The group had concluded that electrical power would be much more expensive by 2000, and felt that this increase in price would make new alternative energy sources more attractive, and solar was the most interesting among these. In 1969, Berman joined the Linden, New Jersey Exxon lab, Solar Power Corporation (SPC).[8]

    His first major effort was to canvas the potential market to see what possible uses for a new product were, and they quickly found that if the price per watt were reduced from then-current $100/watt to about $20/watt there would be significant demand. Knowing that his ribbon concept would take years to develop, the team started looking for ways to hit the $20 price point using existing materials.[8] The first improvement was the realization that the existing cells were based on standard semiconductor manufacturing process, even though that was not ideal. This started with the boule, cutting it into disks called wafers, polishing the wafers, and then, for cell use, coating them with an anti-reflective layer. Berman noted that the rough-sawn wafers already had a perfectly suitable anti-reflective front surface, and by printing the electrodes directly on this surface, two major steps in the cell processing were eliminated. The team also explored ways to improve the mounting of the cells into arrays, eliminating the expensive materials and hand wiring used in space applications. Their solution was to use a printed circuit board on the back, acrylic plastic on the front, and silicone glue between the two, potting the cells. The largest improvement in price point was Berman’s realization that existing silicon was effectively “too good” for solar cell use; the minor imperfections that would ruin a boule (or individual wafer) for electronics would have little effect in the solar application.[9] Solar cells could be made using cast-off material from the electronics market.

    Putting all of these changes into practice, the company started buying up “reject” silicon from existing manufacturers at very low cost. By using the largest wafers available, thereby reducing the amount of wiring for a given panel area, and packaging them into panels using their new methods, by 1973 SPC was producing panels at $10 per watt and selling them at $20 per watt, a fivefold decrease in prices in two years.


  4. Some of the oldest operating PV cells in use are on board the Pioneer 6 space probe, launched in 1965 and last contacted in 2000 though possibly still operational.

    PV is wonderful if you have sunlight continuously.  That was the aim of the L5 society, to capture the sun’s power where neither clouds nor night were factors and PV cells could be sprayed directly onto surfaces in the natural hard vacuum.  PV is useful on this planet, but overcoming night and clouds involves much more expense than fossil fuels.  The expense is a disincentive to convert, and an incentive to cheat on any agreement to do so.  So far, even the agreements have been fractional measures (much less than half) and strongly resisted.

    If we want universal carbon-free energy, we can’t rely on PV resting on this spinning, cloudy rock.  Sad but true.

    • altair04 Says:

      Once again EPot exposes his cognitive bias. While he seems to have become quite reluctant recently to state exactly why he has to continually disparage solar and wind, anyone who’s been reading here long enough knows that it’s due to his nuclear energy fanaticism. Traditional renewables just can’t, can’t be good enough on their own, so that we must turn to nukes to make up the difference.

      (I sure hope the html tags come out right. It’s amazing that 20 years into the internet we still have comment sections without preview functions or other feedback on what can and can’t be used.)

      PV is wonderful if you have sunlight continuously.

      PV is also wonderful even if you don’t have continuous sunlight. It’s not a panacea, certainly, but everybody already knows that. Every kilowatt-hour generated by PV is still a kilowatt-hour not generated by a more polluting source.

      PV is useful on this planet, but overcoming night and clouds involves much more expense than fossil fuels.

      Not it doesn’t. PV is a variable source, yes. But all that means is that you need either a) some other source(s) to fill in the rest of the time, like wind power, b) some ability to time- or space-shift the power from where it’s generated to where it’s used, like batteries and HVDC lines, or most likely c) some combination of the above. None of this requires fossil fuels, nor are they necessarily “much more expensive” than them. Wind power is already the cheapest form of generation available, after all, and battery storage is only a few years away from being fully viable cost-wise.

      The expense is a disincentive to convert, and an incentive to cheat on any agreement to do so. So far, even the agreements have been fractional measures (much less than half) and strongly resisted.

      I can’t for the life of me figure out what the point is here, and my best guess shows it to be a complete red herring. Whatever disincentives there are due to cost are fast disappearing as PV reaches parity with fossil fuels. (Hint: See the article at the top of the page.)

      If we want universal carbon-free energy, we can’t rely on PV resting on this spinning, cloudy rock. Sad but true.

      Again, nobody has ever, ever promoted PV as a complete solution in itself. It has always been seen as just one part in a larger network of renewable technologies that, when taken together as a whole, do provide a complete solution.

      EPot again demonstrates his myopic vision. He can’t see the robust, fully integrated forest for the individually weak trees.


      • I can’t for the life of me figure out what the point is here, and my best guess shows it to be a complete red herring.
        The most common comment response to deniers.. Whaaat?
        No matter how many references, logic… The answer is the same. Screw renewables. What kind of answer is that to climate change? And the other side? Golden Dawn and hormesis.


      • While he seems to have become quite reluctant recently to state exactly why he has to continually disparage solar and wind

        Reluctant?  Me?  I make it clear every time someone asks.  They cost too much and need too much fossil backup to do the job in the very few years we have.  Further, there’s little evidence that they’re actually replacing fossil fuels even at some of the best candidate sites in the world.

        Personal example:  it is cloudy and 37 F outside right now, with meager winds of 9 knots.  PV would be producing very little, wind about the same… and I need heat.  (I’m burning wood at the moment.)  The other night was clear and windless.  Storage is costly and lossy, and without massive amounts of it the scalable renewables (wind and PV) fall back to fossil fuel way too much to get our emissions down to 1 ton/capita.

        Traditional renewables just can’t, can’t be good enough on their own, so that we must turn to nukes to make up the difference.

        That’s what the evidence says.  That’s what none other than James Hansen said to Congress.  We have 15 years to finish a job we should have started 35 years ago, we don’t have time or capital to bet big on unproven schemes.

        If you think I’m wrong, show me.  Show me any fossil-dependent grid (not hydro-based) of decent scale (10 GW average or more) which has been de-carbonized by the addition of “traditional renewables” (wind and solar) and remained reliable and affordable.  I’ll take anything below 10% of coal-plant levels as “de-carbonized”; call it 95 gCO2/kWh.  Please, SHOW ME ONE.

        People point me to paper studies (how do we scale up a paper study to 2 TW in the next 25 years?).  I point them to real countries already doing it my way, with rates a fraction of residential fees in Germany or Denmark.  They raise all sorts of objections why we can’t do it.  Meanwhile, France’s emissions are 20-50 gCO2/kWh and China is going from ~15 GW of nuclear today to 88 GW by 2020.  The objections are ideological, not practical.

        PV is also wonderful even if you don’t have continuous sunlight.

        That depends what else you have to add to make it work… or give up.  Wind and PV are being used as reasons to eliminate base-load plants, even zero-carbon plants.  What replaces the carbon-free base load when the RE isn’t there?  Fossil fuels.  This is a giant leap backward.

        Every kilowatt-hour generated by PV is still a kilowatt-hour not generated by a more polluting source.

        Not true; there are no PV-powered PV factories, and the toxic materials like cadmium are poorly recycled and liable to wind up in landfills.  Last, there’s the issue of just what picks up when the sun goes away.  If you haven’t stored some of that PV power (battery manufacture pollutes too) and don’t have water behind a dam, you’re going to be burning something.  The supply of renewable biomass being as small as it is, most people will be burning fossil fuels.

        None of this requires fossil fuels, nor are they necessarily “much more expensive” than them.

        Then show me where it’s been done.  France is a model that can be replicated, more or less repeated by Ontario.  Sweden can’t be, because you can’t create hydro without the geography and climate.

        Show me where RE did the job.  Just show me one.


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