Thin Film Solar Power - Cheaper than Coal ?

Thin film solar company Nanosolar has now shipped its first solar panels, leading to speculation that the (direct) cost of solar power is now cheaper than coal (and falling).

The company also began an auction for the second panel produced, however this was cancelled by eBay because Nanosolar decided to donate the purchase price to charity. The third panel has been donated to the Tech Museum in San Jose, California.

While it is still too early to tell whether or not Nanosolar can meet their goal of selling solar cells at $1 per watt, the fact that the company has constructed a manufacturing plant and begun shipping the product to a paying customer (in Germany) is a good sign.

The first plant is reportedly capable of producing 430 megawatts a year of cells, which is a respectable amount compared to the total amount of photovoltaic manufacturing capacity currently in place.

Nanosolar's cells are made of Copper Indium Gallium Selenide (CIGS). They aren't the only company working in this area - competitors include Heliovolt and the struggling Miasole. Other thin film solar manufacturers are working with materials like Amorphous Silicon (a-Si) - for example Sharp, Power Film, XSunX and United Solar Ovonic - or Cadmium Telluride (CdTe) - for example First Solar. Konarka also sell "power plastic" (soon to be marketed in Australia by Skyshades) using "Graetzel cells" based on a thin coating of ruthenium and organic bipyridine molecules over a titanium substrate.

One potential issue to watch as manufacturing volumes are scaled up is the availability of the various materials that make up thin film cells.

Availability and price of Tellurium are already concern to analysts of First Solar, though there is speculation that copious amounts of Tellurium can be mined from deep sea ridges.

There appear to be similar concerns about availability of indium in particular (and to a lesser extent gallium) for CIGS cells, though as usual concrete data on total reserves for these seems to be in short supply as well.

Nanosolar's technology is reportedly capable of achieving higher efficiency rates (up to 19.5%) than are achieved with other thin-film technologies. However, these efficiency rates have only been seen under laboratory conditions so far. Mass produced CIGS solar cells usually have efficiency rates of 12%-15% – making them about half as efficient as their silicon PV counterparts.

The centerpiece of Nanosolar’s technique is a proprietary ink developed by the company, which is used to print the semiconductor of the solar cell. The ink is based on various proprietary forms of nano-particles and associated organic dispersion chemistry. Once it is deposited on a flexible substrate, the ink's nano-components align themselves via molecular self-assembly, creating a homogenous mix of nano-particles that ensure the perseverance of the correct atomic ratios of the elements involved even across large areas of deposition. This approach is extremely different from the traditional vacuum deposition processes where one effectively has to "atomically" synchronize various materials sources – a complex process, which significantly limits production efficiency.

The material on which the cells are printed is a highly conductive metal foil substrate . The metal foil is 20 times more conductive than the stainless steel often used in the industry. The company says this property enables major cost reduction on the solar cell’s thin-film bottom electrode. “A thin-film solar cell consists of an absorber semiconductor layer, sandwiched between the top and bottom electrode layers. If the thin films of a solar cell are deposited directly onto a highly conductive metal foil (as opposed to glass or stainless steel), then the bottom electrode gets much simpler because the substrate can do the job of carrying the current” – explained the scientists.

In conventional silicon solar technology, wafer cells are sorted into performance bins according to their electrical characteristics before the cells are assembled into panels. Nanosolar says that this sorting process may result in grouping poorly-matched cells, because cell transitions are created through scribing after they are already deposited on the glass substrate. In contrast, the company claims that their new approach optimizes the accuracy of cell-matching, resulting in better panel efficiency distribution and yield.

The main advantages of Nanosolar's technique are its relatively high speed and the highly precise manufacturing process. According to the company, its thin-film solar films are more than 100 times thinner than silicon-wafer cells and therefore, have correspondingly lower materials costs – between 10%-20% of the current industry standard per kilowatt. The "printing" technique is executed in a "roll-to-roll" manner, in which meters-wide and miles-long rolls of solar panels are created and cut to a desirable size, much like the way in which newspapers are printed at printing houses. As opposed to the method of processing separate wafers or glass plates, a roll-to-roll printing process can be maintained for the entire length of the roll, eliminating undesirable start-ups and other cycle overhead costs – a key advantage, according to the company.

If you want to transition to sustainable infrastructure and mitigate Peak Oil support Feed-in Tariffs. Germany's free-market system has had spectacular results.

Germany de-monopolized power generation. Hermann Scheer deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for that action.

Even if solar is a 100 times more expensive than coal. That is a minor difference. Solar is sustainable. People worry about payback. What is the payback of not having a lifeboat and needing one?

Distributed solar power generation provides economic communities with lifeboats.

Even if solar is a 100 times more expensive than coal. That is a minor difference. Solar is sustainable.

what the heck, it's only money.

The odds of brownouts and blackouts from the monolithic grid is 100%.

California had them, NY had them, Oklahoma had them, etc....

What is the payback of having a lifeboat when you need one? At what price is it too expensive to stay alive?

DId I miss something in the paper today? we desperately need a lifeboat today so we'll pay whatever price, even if we don't have the money?

California power outages was manipulation.
NY has power today.
Are the lights back on in Oklahoma?

I did not quite understand the question?

If today is all that matters, thing are pretty OK.

The lights are back on in Oklahoma. Fortunately, after the ice storm, repair crews from surrounding states helped. I doubt that will happen after Peak Oil really sets in.

There was a really good summary of grid risks by Gail the Actuary.

can I have the date of when peak oil really sets in? tell me who wins the World Series that year too...or I suppose we won't have baseball then because they usually play at night. can we play baseball during the day?

the market is pricing in Peak oil right about now with high prices and people are starting to become interested in alternatives. global warming is also a concern. every time oil goes up I always hear how solar stocks go up. why is that? GM went down the other day when they announced the Volt would be put off for a little bit.

Solar power not only generates electricity during peak generation demand, it generates electricity on site during peak transmission demand. All blackouts due to high demand have occured during summer air conditioning peak, to date.
Avoiding the cost of the blackouts would have paid for the solar generation grids in places like Michigan, Ohio, New York, etc. Not just in California. It gets hot in the summer in the northeast, too.
We could have had solar power for free just by avoiding the costs of the blackouts.

On the issue of blackouts and solar; Grid-tie Solar will go down with the grid as the technical standards are currently written in the US. Grid-tie solar will help with the additional load on the grid during peak summer daytime demand. But will not function with the loss of the grid.

If you go solar grid-tie, at least go with a grid-tie w/battery back-up, then in-house solar can still function during the daylight even if the grid fails.

Some folks, out west, that install a pure grid-tie play will be disappointed that their AC will go down with the grid even if the sun is overhead.


Grid-tied-solar if large remote solar arrays has the same failure mechanism as the grid.

That is not the result of the Feed-in Tariff. These are true economic lifeboats. They can easily operate decoupled from the grid to provide power at the point of need.

It is true that grid tie systems have to shut down in the case of an outage. This is to protect people working on the lines. But, it is not hard to include a switch that physically disconnects from the grid and allows stand-alone operation. You want to be sure you don't have loads that produce transients larger that the capacity of the array or that equipment could be damaged.


or I suppose we won't have baseball then because they usually play at night. can we play baseball during the day?

Amazingly, yes. In fact, an older friend of mine tells me she used to run over to Forbes Field after school to watch baseball. They would let people in free after the fifth inning. She was at Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, and saw Maz hit his walkoff homer.

Yup, believe it or not, the World Series was played during the day. And they let people in free after the halfway point.

The Yankees used to ride the train for three days when they played at St. Louis. Many of those players think that helped the team bond. They say planes have ruined baseball.

Leanan, Mazeroski's home run wasn't 'walk-off'. The Pirates finished batting in the bottom of the eighth and the Yankees went down in order in the top of the ninth. However, Joe Carter's home run in the bottom of the ninth in the 1993 World Series was 'walk-off' because it ended the game.

Bill Mazeroski's World Series Walk-off Home Run

Leading off in the bottom of the ninth, Pittsburgh Pirate second baseman Bill Mazeroski hit a home run over the left-field wall to win the World Series against the New York Yankees. It was the first time a home run had ever ended a World Series.

Hello Leanan,

The best part of the story was how the 13 year old traded the ball back for two cases of beer--I bet his parents didn't find out about this deal until the brewskis were long gone! :0

Yes John we understand:
Capital is God, and The Free Market is the chosen path.
I read Ayn Rand when I was 16 also. Boy is Ayn Rand cool then!
You are a hero for being a complete azzhole!
Is that cool or what?

Ha! - I had a friend fairly recently read Rand for first time (he's in his 30's) - and he was all excited about her and her ideas, wanted to talk all about her, he wasn't very happy when I had the same response "yeah, read her when I was in 10th grade, thought she was a big deal with cool ideas, since I've figured out she was pretty much a nasty combo of libertarian and fascist"

it really amazes me that the "free market" has become as much of a religion as it has - despite the working model of hybrid socialist countries like those of Europe (esp. the Scandinavian countries)

besides, most of the calls for a "free market" seem to me just demands for no taxes on various corporations (or subsidies for them) - hardly a free market (as if such a beast could exist)

I've figured out she was pretty much a nasty combo of libertarian and fascist"

Libertarian National Socialist Green Party

How can anyone be a Libertarian Socialist (let alone a Libertarian National Socialist) - isn't that a contradiction in terms ?

The Green part I can understand, even if Green generally tends to mean the "lower left" corner of the political quadrant nowadays - ecofascism seems to have a long tradition in Europe. But they definitely need to quit calling themselves Libertarians.

As for combining free market rhetoric with fascist ideas, I think thats called "neoconservatism" nowadays - its not really about free markets, its about power and control...

can I have the date of when peak oil really sets in?

If you eat big macs everyday for lunch and dinner, and your doctor tells you you need to stop or you will have a heart attack, are you going to insist he provide you with the date you will actually have the heart attack before you stop eating them?

Brilliant, and quoted!

You have missed the point John15. Coal is massively subsized across the world through its ability to impose its externalities on the rest of the world. Remove this subsidy and renewables become viable.

what the heck, it's only money.

That is rather snarky from a man who can't identify a free market.

'even if solar is a 100 times more expensive than coal. That is a minor difference'
You don't have to be mad. but it helps!
I don't know what your electric bill is, but you must be seriously wealthy if you can contemplate paying 100 times that!
And BTW, making that a government subsidy instead of a direct payment makes no difference at all to the total cost.

Sorry about the 100 times. I was trying to make the point that payback is meaningless if the cost is complete social collapse cause by a collapse of the power grid.

In our use of solar collectors, is typically less than 7 years. We plan on a 30 year commercial system life. When solar harvesting really ramps to scale, I think that payback will become even better.

You assume that the people in power are looking (and seriously) at the long-term picture and not the near-term profits.

I'll give you a hint. They're not. If they were, climate change would scare the shit out of them. The US, and even nations who accept AGW as gospel truth, aren't that psyched up about it to cut all growth right now and pump everything into sustainable living.

And therein lies the flaw in your plan. Human nature. Don't worry, it sank communism and living peacefully too.

I do expect but am appalled at the lack of governmental leadership.

I expect a lot of people will build their own lifeboat.

"I expect a lot of people will build their own lifeboat"

Bill that takes time and money - we've been living on 18 acres for over a year and we don't feed ourselves yet! Tertiary Industry to Peasant is a big step, and there probably are more skills involved in the latter than the former.

If you are thinking of a lifeboat do it now!

I agree. The paradox about lifeboats is the more we make the more likely we will never need them.

The skills issue, "don't feed ourselves yet" is a critical one. But you have started the process of self-reliance. I think it would be good for TOD to promote a set of policies to deal with Peak Oil. My choices would be policies of self-reliance and community economic lifeboats:

  • Grow 1/3rd of your own food. It will take 3-5 years to get 50% of people to be competent gardeners to reach that level. This will not save the world but it will
    • lighten the logistical load
    • provide a sense that we can save ourselves
    • provide a sense of community and mutual protection of gardens
    • provide starvation rations
  • Feed-in Tariffs. Reliable electricity 5 hours a day provides hope.
  • Personal Rapid Transit, PRT. Allow the success of Morgantown to propagate.
  • Universal state militia service. Secure your community, individuals cannot survive by themselves. Peak Oil is going to be great for world peace and hell on local peace. Competition is the natural state; peace is the enforced absence of war.
  • Government charge for non-commercial costs of carbon, other emissions, unclean water, etc....

Bill James- what you described is something akin to our invovlement in WWII. victory gardens are estimated to have supplied 40% of our vegetables.

What works is not necessarily new.

Militias are also not new. Generally not affective against armies, but armies require gas, horses or bicycles. They are not currently equipped for the last two choices.

What we have found in our experience is that it is easy not to use energy...

We have done away with all household appliances save the washing machine and use manual appliances instead. We only use one or two lights at a time, and we don't have TV reception out here.

Recent visits to my children over Christmas re-infoced that there is nothing worth watching on TV and that we are all overinformed with the views our corporate would be masters wish us to hear.

Our health and fitness has improved along with mental clarity and a feeling of wellbeing. I wholeheartedly support Sharon Astik and others call for millions of new farmers - although we don't feed ourselves completely we have produced many tonnes of spuds!!!

It is pretty amazing how many potatoes can be grown ;)

You know you don't just print the money and the solar panels fall out of the sky. If something costs a lot it means a lot of people have to spend time building things, digging in the ground, going to college to get advanced degrees and telling other people to do stuff all over the world to get what you want done.

Hmmm, this is how I thought that cartoon was going to end.

Heh, heh :-)


as a German I'd like to add that unfortunately now we have an oligopoly with 4 big companies (RWE, E.on, EnBW and Vattenfall Europe) over here.

They keep raising prices all the time and there are rumors of ENRON-style manipulation of electricity prices at the energy market. Which prompts even secretaries of state to comment:,1518,525807,00.html (in German, you can babelfish it, "river and gas" is actually electricity and gas, and "current" is electricity ;-) )

The market here isn't as liberalized as it should be.

But the feed-in tariffs for alternative energy are a big breakthrough, I have to admit that. Scheer is a hero for making that possible.

Best regards,

J. Daehn, Hannover, Germany

I believe Scheer's Feed-in Tariff's and the German peoples rallying to it should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The proof is in the results. Germany added 4,000 MW of renewable generation in 2006. California's liberal subsidy approach added 242 MW of renewable generation in the last 5 years.

There will be issues with large scale manipulation of the grid and utilities. The transition from a regulated monopoly towards a distributed free market is likely to be long and sorted.

Thanks for the comment about Scheer as a hero. I do not think many people realize the scope and importance of the Feed-in Tariff accomplishment.

Well for me he is. I was just about to write "he saved all our (German) butts" (Er hat uns allen den Arsch gerettet). But time will tell if it suffices. Actually he and our Chancellor are featured in "50 people who could save the planet", available at the Guardian
(was already mentioned in another thread).

Angie gets the longest coverage. But actually Scheer and the Greens should have gotten it.

Solar panels have sprung up all over the country side. Farmers seem to get the message. I haven't seen many in towns.

What a pity that you cannot get the fabulous Enercon wind turbines in the US. Their story is actually one of abuse of patents and the NSA spying out trade secrets (with German help):

The last link is from the University of the "Bundeswehr". Unfortunately only in German.

I have some concerns about Nanosolars product. I believe that the panels are only available to utilities and they are being very secretive about the product details. What is the life of these panels? Most manufacturers warrant their products for 20 years. A company that yields few details should be regarded with a measure of skepticism.

The NanoSolar "news" is pure PT Barnum. They can't make this stuff by the method they claim in any commercially viable quantities at this time. That is not to say that the approach will never work, but that the press release upon which all the reports were based is highly misleading creating the impression that they are much further along than they really are. This kind of hype ultimately does a disservice to a promising technological pathway. It will be many years before this promise if fullfilled. And believe me, 19.5% is not in the cards for this deposition technique.

My congenitally present shit-detector tells me that what you say is true. I would like some references -- it isn't enough to just assert that they are overstating their case.

Enough for what? References? Mine or theirs? These guys don't publish. Mine would be in "Applied Physics Letters" or "Progress in Photovoltaics". That is where my High efficiency CI(G)S results have been published. High efficiency CI(G)S devices are all fabricated via vacuum evaporation techniques. The very highest by a three stage process on Soda lime glass. The glass is important because it is a source of Na which has been found to be essential.

We have a team that is working on an ink jet "nano powder" technique that is nearly identical to the one used by NanoSolar. It is a very challenging approach. The advantage is that it could eventually be very cheap, but the trade-off is that the performance is very poor.

If you parse the language of the original press releases offered by NanoSolar, not the articles written by the Times or the Guardian, you will see that they didn't actually lie. They were careful about that. But, the fact is that they only managed to make a handful of modules. This is consistent with the fundamental problems associated with the approach which is a very poor degree of reproducibility. Read their web site. They try to make a virtue of the fact that they can "electrically match their cells". Well, this is actually a function of the fact that the performance is all over the map. They had to crank out many to get a few good ones.

Carefully read the self congratulatory press release. "the first commercial module to contain a cell that was deposited on an inexpensive foil substrate"... Notice that they used the singular. Leaving open the possibility that there was only one such cell in the entire module. I wouldn't be surprised if the bulk of the cells in the module were fabricated with the much more mature vacuum evaporation processes.

This whole episode reads to me like the shipment of modules was a condition of this phase of their funding. A "deliverable". The press release is a rather standard procedure for meeting such a milestone, but to my way of thinking it was written in a manner that was highly misleading. Then, the Times picked it up and leapt to the conclusion that this was more than PR.

Normally, I wouldn't get involved in this sort of thing. But I believe that making these sorts of claims prematurely does harm to the technology. If it becomes firmly entrenched in the public's mind that this goal of <$1.00 watt has been achieved, any intermediate result, no matter how impressive is going to be met with yawns. The fact is that this approach will be very cheap if it can be made to work. But it is by no means clear that it can. And if it can, it is going to take a considerable amount of development work to make it real.

Thanks for this. Very informative. The kind of thing only an "insider" would know.

Interesting post - and why I am not looking at the future with rose colored glasses

it seems that nearly all technologies which show promise to help mitigate peak oil suffer from this:
"The fact is that this approach will be very cheap if it can be made to work. But it is by no means clear that it can. And if it can, it is going to take a considerable amount of development work to make it real."

this seems to apply to plug in hybrids (lack of good, inexpensive batteries with a long life and enough charge for a reasonable distance between charges) - to wind (storage and only-part-time issues, and of course nimby), to cleaner more efficient nukes (if pebble beds and breeders are so great, why isn't anybody building them?) - and of course to that great (future) savior, fusion (so far it doesn't work, we can't solve the engineering problems, horribly expensive to even build working models let alone producing plants)

add to this a (near) future world with shrinking resources (including money to pay for it all), and our ever working all these problems out BEFORE it all goes into the toilet, seems less and less likely...

Thanks for the particulars.

As far as 'Yawns' go, I am also continually amazed at how much of a YAWN even I seem to find for the enormous potential to actually offset Heating Oil, Natural Gas and Electricity Demand with the astonishingly simple outlay of a few million bucks per state to start getting Solar Heating up onto our rooftops. It's simple, can use a range of different materials, and a 4th grader could do the math that says this would save us a terrific amount of our energy demand.

What do you think of the prediction that even if one of the newer PV techs did bring the $/watt way down, that demand levels would pretty much guarantee that the delivered price is unlikely to shave by much, and will probably shoot UP if we hit any serious AboveGround bumps or FF downslides.

Any time someone tells me they're waiting for the price to fall, I tell them they might want to get a few Watts worth at US$5, in case that turns out to have been the 'cheap' price.


I automatically discount anything Nanosolar announces. I don't believe it. The company started out on the Toronto Stock Exchange listed as a gold miner with no output, morphed into a Vancouver Stock Exchange listed company as a gold miner with no output, morphed once more into a Las Vegas based gold miner with no output, then changed its name, bought a paint company, and began touting itself as a leading researcher in solar technology [yeah right]. So far, they have provided nothing but spin.

While I am not questioning their honesty, I don't believe them.

ImSceptical - What is your source for this information? Not a single element of it backed up by anything I can find online.

First off NanoSolar is a privately held company backed by venture capitalists, includign Benchmark Capital, Davidow Ventures, Sergei Brin and Larry Page, Jeff Skoll and OnPoint:,-solar-start-up-takes-on-big-guns/2100-11398_3-6086151.html

I'm sure the gold/paint company has simply pulled the wool over the eyes of all these poor investors.

Beyond that they have received multiple grants and contracts from California and US Government agencies:

I'm sure DARPA and the US DoE just send millions over to paint companies.

If they were publicly listed, I would wonder if you were carrying a short position.

Would you be interested in helping get solar powered mobility networks deployed?

I haven't heard of that term before. Checking Google I found a reference to your project JPods.

Great concept! There was a similar proposal called SkyTran a few years ago which had a lot of similarities, but required a number of technological innovations to realize. Your design seems to be based around current technology.

What sort of help are you looking for?

I promote SkyTran and everyone making these efforts. Building a Physical-Internet is vital to mitigating Peak Oil. The cost is low enough, service and capacity high enough to attract drivers from cars.

Our technology is very simple. Integrate roller coaster mechanics with distributed collaborative computer networks.

Here are a couple of clips to show how simple the technology is: a Fox News Story and my niece pushing an occupied JPod. You can see rail upgraded between the two and how low the power requirements.

As for what we need help with, everything. We are building a distributed power grid, mobility mechanics, very large solar arrays, etc.... The great thing is there is a 65% cost saving to pay for the transition.

email me:

Mikeo, I may very well be wrong. Perhaps I'm confusing them with another company named Nano* which claimed to be building better batteries and solar PV. I believe their battery technology was slated [by them, anyway] for use in the Tesla.

For some reason I associated Nanosolar with this other company.

Do you have any references/further information on why you say they cannot make this work? I'm not saying there haven't been quite a few hokum stories but is there anything that physically stops it achieving the scale and performance claimed?

Just stop and think a moment about what they (we) are trying to do. For a photovoltaic device to work, you need to be able to create a high quality semi-conductor with a long minority carrier lifetime, few defects in the crystal lattice, and a long diffusion length. They are essentially trying to do this by grinding up the constituent elements into a very fine powder (That's where the "nano" comes from) mixing it with a solvent and and then spraying it onto a foil and heating it up. If you consider the phase diagrams of the elements involved, you need to try to fool mother nature somehow unless you want to end up with a film that is essentially crap. Under certain circumstances, if everything works just right, you can get this to work over small areas. But that doesn't make for a commercial product. Nothing that I have seen out of these people indicates that they have done anything more than made a whole shit load of relatively shitty films, cherry picking a few good ones and integrating them into a few modules to meet their contractual obligations for deliverables. I could of course be wrong, but that is my professional opinion and unless I saw some evidence, which they clearly have not demonstrated, I see no reason to believe anything other than the literal words they have released, not the NY Times gullible interpretation of them.

Thanks for explaining all this SW - its nice to have some feedback from someone working in the field.

Even IF Nanosolar could make solar PV panels at $1 per watt, I would recommend that they not sell much below the $5 per watt panel market price. Not only could they retain the profits for future expansion, but they would preserve the wafer based industry that is badly needed. What we need now are more panels, not a monopoly by one company.

Selling panels at say $3 per watt might sound good, but if you eliminate a whole wafer based industry, you might do more harm than you would think. Germany has provided incentives for PV and the market took off like a rocket. Now we need to sustain that momentum, not destroy it.

Demand relationship to price may not be what people think. If you can cut the panel price per watt at the retail level in half, you may not see twice as many watts sold year over year.

I know this is not what some people want to hear, but the consequences of actions should be fully considered before making hasty moves.

"Thin Film Solar Power - Cheaper than Coal ?", asks the title of the keypost.

That such a question can even be asked is evidence of the massive strides made by solar engineers over the last decade.

And the cartoon is pure genuis! :-)


Yes, it's a danger. Suppose someone comes up with a solar cell with a 7-year halflife which sells for a lot less than silicon PV. The short-term nature of human thought and business cycles could give those a huge advantage since the threshold for putting them in place would be lower, but they might be a worse choice than more expensive cells that last longer.

When you throw in the reliance of this process on indium and tellurium, etc, it gets a bit dodgy. That wouldn't be a problem in a niche product, but it could be if it attracted a preponderance of investment.

Almost any startup is forced to make extravagant claims simply to survive in business. That's not a criticism of these guys, but unless they're saints they will be subject to this reality.

Still, good luck to 'em. There must be a lot of ways to get energy from the sun. Whatever happened to quantum dots? Rhetorical question, I can google it if I want to.

I love the low-tech of CSP with steam storage for baseload. You could nearly maintain that on 19th-century technology. The problem with needing large supplies of trace metals like this, is that you wind up requiring a manganese-nodule mining infrastructure in place as an integral part of the process. High-threshold stuff like that will not be around in the future.

Here is an article about storing heat in sodium for use at night.

This with pumped hydro could make 24/7 renewable possible.

The cartoon is out of date. Big oil don't own the oil any more, they own about 10% of it. The rest is in the hands of national oil companies, most of whom don't have a clue what they are doing. Hence the shortages.
Also why all this fuss about price. all fossil generated electricity is going to soon be very expensive indeed, as well as very polluting.

"The rest is in the hands of national oil companies, most of whom don't have a clue what they are doing. Hence the shortages."

riiiiiiiiiiight - it's all those damn foreigner's fault! it's OUR oil, and they just can't pump it fast enough!

couldn't have anything to do with geology could it?

btw, I have heard nothing but "well-managed" about Saudi Aramco - so the largest producer is doing a fine job, there just isn't enough oil to go around for rising world demand AND SA, Russia etc. all have increasing internal demand to deal with - hence the shortages

so much more fun to blame somebody else for the problem though isn't it?

I think from a layman's point of view "big oil" could mean the NOCs as well as the 7, ooops - make that 4, sisters.

Anyway - its not meant to be literally true - "big oil" doesn't own the coal or uranium mines either. Maybe "big business" should be the title.

The dream of solar panels (be they PV or thin film) is that you buy the things and become "energy independent" - no more reliance on the coal / oil companies for your power / fuel (once you have an EV as well) and some utility company.

Big oil don't own the oil any more, they own about 10% of it.

Prove it.

Prove that what you call "ownership" is actual ownership VS a situation where the government that nominally controls the surface over the mineral allows the extraction of said mineral(s) for a fee.

The rest is in the hands of national oil companies, most of whom don't have a clue what they are doing. Hence the shortages.

That's right, they should be pumping it out of the ground as fast as they can using best practices, and selling it to America as cheap as possible. And if they can't, America will come in and take over.

Excellent cartoon, I'm gonna have to boost it.

Wish I could find the full size version and hang it on the wall.


I thought it was idiotic. Big doesn't own coal or nuclear resources and as noted above doesn't really own much oil. Is there really a claim that solar would be viable except for the protests of big oil which somehow have stopped it?

In a field in which there is so much useful and accurate to say, why would you latch on to the only thing I have seen on TOD that is pure falsehood?

Man, I don't even know where to start. Alas, believe what you want to believe. The criminal class appreciates it.

Start here:

Does big oil own coal? Nuclear? Do they really even control oil markets anymore? And finally, do you think the reason solar isn't viable is because big oil killed it? Is there anything in the cartoon that is either accurate or entertaining?

Who is the criminal class?

Well, that's easy. The biggest coal miners in the world are Shenua Energy in China, Peabody Energy in the US, Rio Tinto in Canada.

None of those are owned by "Big Oil".

The biggest Uranium miners are Camaco in Canada, Rio in Australia, plus a large number of small players.

None of those are owned by "Big Oil".

Ironically, Big Oil used to own solar (Shell Solar and BP Solar were the second and third largest PV cell makers in the world in '05). But they sold out just before the boom.

There is a significant market segment where PV only has to be competitive with end-user distributed electricity prices rather than with wholesale feed-in coal of gas generator prices - that is for daytime use in sunny regions. I don't know exact figures, but I understand that here in the UK the difference is about threefold.

I'd just like to comment on "cheaper than coal" because the link does not really address this. The link does cover some of the environmental costs of coal, but comparing the cost per watt to build a coal plant with the cost per watt to install solar is not all that fair. If we assume that the coal plant will run for 30 years without needing to be rebuilt, and it runs about 70% of the time, the cost per kwh (owing to constructing the plant) will be lower than the cost per kwh for installing the panels (each at $2/Watt) because the panels can only expect about 5 hours a day of noon equivilent sunlight in the middle of the US. They will run at about 21% of the time on average. So lets calculate what a kwh of solar under these conditions costs: 5 hours a day for 30 years is 43,800 hours so for $2 you buy 43.8 kWh which comes to 4.6 cents or so per kwh. The cost for building the coal plant over the same time is about 1.4 cents per kwh. It is the fuel cost that brings the price of coal up. For coal to be competitive with solar the fuel cost must add less that 3.2 cents per kwh, or for a 40% efficient plant, 1.3 cents per 3340 BTU or about $3.80/MBTU. This is higher than the current cost of coal near about $1.78/MBTU. The other cost of a coal plant is labor and some maintenance (including consumables for scrubbers) which should be lower or absent for solar.

We still want to find ways to drive down the cost of solar panels and the cost of installation to make electricity cheaper in the US. But, we are getting much closer. In the Southwest, with around 7 hours per day of noon equivilent sunlight, things are closer still and solar can bring down the cost of electricity there because it can displace gas fired generation. The more solar power we install now, the quicker we'll get to cheaper electricity because much of the savings still to be had come from scale in manufacturing.


Hi Chris

You are clearly on top of all the various costs involved. You have missed one vital cost of coal though - its external costs. If these were not subsidized as they are now the overall kWh cost of coal would be significantly higher. This subsidy undermines a critical economic principle - the Polluter Pays Principle.

Are you implying that solar isn't being subsidized?

I did praise the link for mentioning the environmental differences but my criticisim is about the method of demonstrating costs. I would say that solar is competitive with the current energy mix now when it displaces retail power and this has the effect of controlling elecricity prices as it reduces the rate at which natural gas needs to be extracted. But, this is competing at the retail level. Wind is competing at the wholesale level and solar is only beginning to get into this niche. I think that it will end up being the least expensive form of power and will continue to reduce energy costs for a couple of centuries (recycling really helps for silicon). I also feel we are at the point where further delay in deploying solar means a higher cost in the long run because starting about now we have to start counting coal as expensive power that we are using in the interim. This is independent of the cost of mediation of or adaptation to the environmental damage from coal. If you want polluter pays, and I don't disagree with you, you are going to need to attach assets and revenue streams pretty quickly I think. It may be better just to slay the beast.



Solar is incredibly potent when used where generated (calculators). This also fits with our solar powered mobility networks.

Payback can be assessed against congestion, gas prices, car insurance, and distributed durable power networks.

I am quite delighted with current solar collector prices. I also believe that solar collection and energy storage will be on a learning curve similar to that of data storage. The future is bright if we act while we still have enough oil to make the transition.

Chris, Nonosolar does not use silicon, but that nitpick aside, congratulations on putting figures on things which are of the right order?
That's pretty unusual on the forums!

The cost of silicon should be coming down as well. Right now it is elevated owing to high demand but there are some new purification processes that look like they'll beat Siemens' process. So, I don't think thin film is going to hold the market. The potential for increased efficiency in silicon has not been exhausted so I think the residential market at least will be mainly silicon until there is a more efficient technology, perhaps based on carbon. Silicon can match many homes' power use but that is harder to do with thin film. Commercial usually can't meet its power use no matter what so their calculation is a bit different and they favor the power purchace agreement that does the best overall. Also, the commercial deals often include recovering the panels to get the cadmium out of the way. There is more residential roof space than commercial so likely silicon will continue to dominate.


"Cheaper than Coal" is a moving target. We tend to look foward to the day when the cost of solar comes down to match coal. But maybe the cost of coal will rise to meet it half-way.
Certainly coal prices have risen considerably in the last three years, due to increased Chinese demand. China recently became a net coal importer as it is relying heavily on coal to meet its expanding energy needs.
As oil and gas prices rise over the next ten years we are likely to see coal prices rise along side, particularly if there is a move into coal-to-liquids. Leaving aside the environmental consequences (as the Chinese certainly aren't going to let that hold them back) or general wisdom of CTL, you would expect it to dramatically increase the marginal demand for coal due to the much higher dollar-per-joule value of liquid fuels.

If coal costs twice as much in ten years and solar has come down by half in the same time, then solar becomes cheaper in a wide range of applications.

Thanks for doing those calcs.

The comments at the link (Grist) went over this a little but your comparison is closer to apples to apples.

Mate the coalies costings operate roughly on one third capital to build, one third in fuel and one third in operating costs including labour..

The benefit of solar is that it offsets retail prices - every house has a roof - same with water - tanks cost more than bulk water but less than the metered cost...

With equal costs for labor and fuel, then things are much closer. The better word would be competitive with coal rather than cheaper but in the US Southwest, cheaper would likely be correct. On the other hand, if coal had serious competition, I think they'd find a way to lay some people off.


If we assume that the coal plant will run for 30 years without needing to be rebuilt.

Probably not a good assumption. Project lifetimes are usually more in the 10-15 year region. To get a plant to operate out to forever, you usually have to budget 4-5% per year (of the initial investment) operating capital. Either that or you overdesign the puppy by a lot (which makes the ROI go to hell).

OK - half life of 7 years. Now we have an ER/EI problem: melting down the dead film and separating the materials in order to recycle it into new film.

we also have a materials problem. What is the FILM part of it made of? Oil? I can't imagine they would put the materials out in nature without some kind of protectant (plastic, I would assume. Perhaps glass?) Include that in the equation. So, now we need a super durable non-petroleum based plastic for the second generation of these cells.

I'm very keen on the idea of this technology, but I am worried about some of the cost externalisations that are going into calculating its price. It may be $1 a watt when you buy it, but its recycling and processing may be much much more expensive.


If a $1 per watt is true it could be more profitable than Australia's baby bonus for teenage mothers. The Greenhouse office pays a rebate of up to $8 per watt
Even on a 1:1 credit (ie no feed-in tariff) the payback period could be less than a year.

With battery improvements in the pipeline maybe a typical house will be able to go completely off grid for less than $10,000. Utility companies go to hell. There has to be a catch somewhere.

Now Class, today we are to discuss the following quote from an economist (pardon the expletive);

“Yes, what you have proposed would indeed save the planet, but it would cost too much”.

In your discussion, you will need some definitions of “cost”. To avoid meaningless recitals of millions, billions and trillions, I suggest the following rationalized units of cost:

1 Pop-= Money spent on soft drinks/year.
1 Splat= Money spent on obese cars/year
1 Whop-=Money spent on Iraq war
1 Whoop= Money spent on products sold by seductive advertising but not otherwise desired or even thought of.

Example. You may discover that the yearly expenditure of the US government on sustainable energy research is less than one tenth of one Pop. (Too much?)
Or, the total amount needed to provide basic human support for the entire population of the world is less than one Splat. (Can’t afford it?)
Or, the amount needed to entirely and permanently switch to exclusively solar and solar-derived energy is less than one Whop. (No coal/oil needed ever again.)

(See our textbook* for support of these numbers.)

But, if your analysis concludes that the quote above is justified- perhaps by your hypothesis that the purpose of life is to make money- then you are assigned yet another task - you must suggest an evolutionary process that would result in your getting the capacity to metabolize money only, since the things you are used to drink, eat and breathe will be destroyed as you turn them all into money.

And, oh, by the way, the money you are to metabolize cannot be assumed to be paper. No. Sorry, that would be far too easy --the money you must feed on to the exclusion of all else will exist only in the form of bits and bytes on hard drives-if that.
Class dismissed.

Ah, Yes- this WILL be on the Final Exam.

* Lester Brown “Plan B, 3-0- Mobilizing to Save Civilization”
(download at

That was kinda obscure.. or I'm really tired. But it reminds me of a joke.

In the Presidential Briefing one day, it gets reported that an IED took out a convoy in Baghdad that morning, and in addition to some wounded, a Brazilian was killed in the attack. The President looks ashen, no, downright stricken, and asks the advisor, "My God, How Many is a Brazilian?!"


Well, thanks jokuhl, for the joke. Pretty good, and gets to my point- who the hell knows what a Billion is, when you tell 'em that such and such costs X Billion?

My point, which seems to have been totally lost among the thin films, is that when we talk about cost of things we really want and need, we gotta compare it to stuff we know about and happily pay for right now. Preferably stuff tht is downright worthless or worst.
Seriously, is solar energy research worth less than soda pop? Way less? Well, that's what our budget says.

BTW. I once tried a little stirling engine on a fresnel lens. It got about 20% thermal efficiency- sun to AC power. It is made of just plain sainless steel, no quantum mechanics req'd. If you guess at its cost in mass production by taking the material cost and putting an experience multiplier on it, you get maybe $300/kilowatt. So, what's going on with the great capitalist system, screwing around with the other stuff instead, when all they have to do is go where I am pointing and make me a Brazilianaire?

It has to operate in the wind, after the wind, after it has been crapped on by a bird, after it has been covered with dust, after dust has got into the bearings... I could go on. It is not easy. The real world tends towards perversity.
Assume titanium if you want to build a lot. Check the price of nickel lately? Know that most of the "cheap" chrome ore in the world is in Zimbabwe?
I support concentrated solar photovoltaic over stirling for a reason. Silicon is everywhere.

Ah good grief! Dust in the bearings! Free piston stirling engines are TOTALLY SEALED. Like a refigerator compressor. NOTHING can go in or out but heat and electricity. And NASA is betting big money on their lasting for years and years and years in space with no repair man in sight.

And the concentrator tracker is sealed, just like the suspension joints on my junky toyota. They have been bouncing at a great rate for 20 years submerged in salt, sand, tar and wet, and still work just fine. The concentrator tracker bearing is way way slower. Like maybe 15 degrees per hour.

Nickel is not just in Zimbabwe. A hell of a lot of it is in my kitchen, and even more in the local dump.

"Silicon is everywhere"! Right. But not with every single molecule stacked perfectly on top of every other single molecule, with just exactly the right kind and amount of other atoms just perfectly placed. .
As for the bird poop. Sure, and the same for every other concentrator for every other energy converter, like for example, triple junction PV (ha ha ha).

Solar thermal is way cheaper per megawatt than PV right now, and will be just as cheaper in the future. And more than that. A solar thermal machine can be totally recycled and put back new, just like a car engine or any other simple metal stuff. A busted PV is just that much more sand until you go thru the de-entropizing again with a whopping lot of energy.

Aw, why waste my breath? Just go do it. Right.

The energy to recycle a solar panel is about one third that which is needed to fabricate it initially. This probably means that silicon is long run cheapest but there are advantages to concentrated solar theremal as well. The sterlings might be able to work backwards at night since the temperature of the night sky is pretty low. You won't get a lot of power but it might still be useful.


Good point, mdsolar, on the night temp diff. But stirlings designed for high deltas don't like low deltas. Of course, rankine (vapor) cycles do well with that, but don't do as well as stirlings at the high temps possible with concentrators.

And thanks for the reminder on remanufacturing PV. I still put my pence and pounds on solar thermal.

Anyhow, may the best one win.

Now, down to the important question. Why don't people here grab on to the idea that has been floated by them every week or so- solar thermal in the desert, HVDC transmission to anywhere, and pumped hydro storage. Proposition for the debate- that combo is THE silver bullet. It is NOT just a bb. See last month's Scientific American, and Nathan Lewis in Caltech's Engineering and Science mag.

I think concentrators are going to be used in the Southwest, regardless of the backend. With thermal, it is possible to build in storage, which is a plus, but to boost thermodynamic efficiency you need to boost delta T which puts pretty severe constraints on the optics. That can be done I think. The navy is working on composite materials mirrors that have very good surfaces, often better than polished glass, and if wind shake can be dealt with, pointing to within an arcsecond or so should be possible. But all those specs loosen if you have a 50% efficient PV backend since it is not dependent on getting a high delta T. So, you can reduce your material requirements by going to high grade optics or by going to a non-thermal collector and I suspect that the non-thermal collector cost will be low enough that the extra cost for mirror surfaces and pointing control for thermal won't make it worthwhile for straight power generation. Another limit on the thermodynamic efficiency of concentrated solar is materials issues. It is likely less constrained than for nuclear since there the fuel itself needs to be protected, but highly refractory materials can be difficult to work with. Concentrators do not convey such a large advantage outside of a desert and in some areas do worse than panels.

So, the remaining costs are transmission and storage. The transmission is justified if the cost of power from the southwest is sufficiently lower than the cost of power that is locally generated, or if the cost reduction in storage is significant owing to a steadier resource or supplying the East after sunset there. I think 30 GW scale coast-to-coast transmision makes sense on a time shifting basis using East Coast and West Coast rooftop PV as sources though I notice that Midwest wind in only considering GW scale transmision so far. Going to the larger scale should reduce transmision losses substantially because higher voltages can be used owing to the larger radius of curvature of the conductor. Perhaps there is room for discussion on how wind might feed in. I raise (humorous) concerns about the forthrightness of New Mexico politicians here. Hope I didn't scuttle Bill Richardson's campaign with that....

On storage, I think that there is going to be quite a lot of storage coming on line as batteries that are no longer up to transportation grade are reused in buildings. This can be a large amount of capacity. We will likely need a bit more than this and pumped hydro can make sense. We have about 24 GW of this online now. But, there are other options and which get used is going to depend the type of storage needed and cost. Here is a list I put together.

Taken together, I think renewables are a silver firehose rather than a bullet or bb. We just need to adjust our thinking to understand where the appropriate resources are. Currently we are concentrating mostly on plants because that is historically how we have gotten renewables, but the ecosystem is telling us to look elsewhere and it turns out that when we do we are much better than plants at getting the job done.


Wow! What a lot of good work. Thanks, Chris, I will look more often at your stuff.

Meanwhile, back in the junk littered shop, I am getting encouraging signs from a REALLY SIMPLE stirling engine, and lo and behold, some money people say maybe they are interested. Maybe, Maybe, Maybe---------.

Keeping it simple is very important. I hope that things develop well for you.


Chris, send me a note if you would

I've been working on receivers that are composed of highly efficient III-V multi-junction PV arrays that can drop into current stirling dish systems. I think they offer several advantages. Higher efficiency, much less weight, reduced service and ultimately lower cost.

Why wouldn't you do both? If you have a PV with 15% efficiency, what happens to the other 85%? Heat. If you did it right you would have thermal and PV integrated.

If you did it right you would have thermal and PV integrated.

I have looked for a long time for such an animal, TJ, but the realities of the ways that buildings are constructed, the fabrication issues, the reliability issues, and building permit and UL listing issues have long stymied it.

However, quite a bit of research into electric and thermal solar integration--what is now called hybrid photovoltaic/thermal (PV/T or PVT)--has been going on for the last several years, and a few manufacturers are starting to bring it to market, usually as BIPV equipment, where the house and the roof membrane can be designed around it from the ground up.

However, not all of the missing 85% (83% for SunPower's "high efficiency" modules) is wasted as heat. Lots of photons either bounce off the module, or pass through it without being trapped. I believe the heat is mainly from the infrared spectrum (which most PV modules don't tap), and it's partially responsible for the efficiency problems with PV modules--they derate as they heat up. Which is another reason why hybrid modules have the potential to substantially increase the overall efficiency score.

Germany and Japan subsidized purchase of solar energy units, the electricy they produce is not cheaper than the national grid produced electricity.

An amorphous silicon PV cell was scheduled to last 30 years with productivity gradually decreasing over 30 years. It is therefore a non-renewable type system that can only be sustained for a limited amount of time. There were energy inputs in mining, transport, manufacture, transport, and installation of these systems that cause them to be price inefficient compared to existing power production.

Metal thin film units must also be subject to degradation, corrosion, etc.

Sustainable is relative. It doesn't mean 'Perpetual' or 'Free'.. it means you can keep doing it, and that it doesn't 'unreasonably' demolish the environment that we, the users and the rest of the living world depend upon to persevere.

Yes, there will be mining, and new inputs. There will also be a considerable amount of recycling of spent cells and other electronics (of which there is a lot that is currently 'uneconomical' to tap for its relevant contents, yet.)

"price inefficient compared to existing power production." -compared to cheap fuels when combined with a blind-eye for environmental and off-shored social costs.

There was a big announcement about pushing to get people to recycle their old Cell Phones on NPR tonight. Not me! Lately, I've been starting to stockpile old CPU chips, memory, phones and chip-dense electronics, on the somewhat-wacky longshot that there will be a growing surplus market for anything with polySi and other E-waste materials in it.. we'll see how far that packrat notion carries.. I'm not going to pay for warehouse space, that's for sure! Just a little backup stash, next to the 'Aluminum, Copper and Ferrous Bins' that comprise part of a Gadgeteer's Workshop. No sense in tossing out perfectly good metals!


I really like how you think. Re-mining our efforts are important. I'm not sure I would store things but I am sure re-mining will grow in importance.

Germany does not subsidies. They do incentive.

People must risk their own capital and produce a usable result. The government does not subsidize the risk. That is a huge difference.

Given the numbers that Nanosolar has put out, the cost will not be below coal but is getting closer. That in itself is a cause for hope. Yes, of course, it could be hype but no one so far has come even close to showing that -- just a bunch of baseless, non technical allegations. The issue, in any event, won't be variable cost per kwh, but the ability to provide base power through storage of some kind. This company has serious money behind it and is building the manufacturing facilities to scale up. They have a lot more going for them than a lot of companies that have gone public with no revenues, a few patents, and a lot of promises.

The key mystery for me is why they don't seem to be in any hurry to go public.

Do you have any idea how many people are throwing themselves at Nanosolar? People with money, people like me with direct experience, all begging to be let in on the party!

Nanosolar's in business to make money, not solar panels. There are competitors, but none is any closer at implementing CIGS. I think those boys know just exactly what they're doing, business-model wise, and it's certainly not PTBarnum. Nor are they interested in saving the world - It looks to me like a carefully phased product introduction that's intended to not disrupt the existing PV market.

Technically speaking: Yes, printed CIGS is a long way off at best, a pipe dream at worst. But their DC magnetron sputtered product really works, it's really in production, and they're beta-testing it right now on the roofs of selected industrial customers. The last time I spoke with them, they still had surface-wetting issues that prevented their transparent top electrode from being as thin and robust as they needed. (And no, it's not ITO, so I'm assuming it must be gold.)

But they definitely have a product, a plan, and all the resources that they could ask for to see it through.

I'm sorry that I wasn't clearer - I think that Nanosolar has a hybrid process now, where some of the layers are sputtered and some are printed - though the printed layers may be made of sputtered "ink" flakes, much like those pioneered by OCLI for flipflop colors on paper currency.

The holy grail for PV is an all-printed process, but there's a good chance that the "inks" will still require some sort of vac dep in their fab.

If you use a foil substrate as the back contact, there are three deposited layers in a CI(G)S device structure. The actual CI(G)S absorber layer which is the semi-conductor that does the photo-conversion, usually a CdS window layer and then a transparent conducting oxide that forms the top electrode.

The difficult thing to do is to make a high quality absorber CI(G)S layer out of what is essentially a bunch of powder. Yes it would be nice if you could also print the top electrode but sputtering it is no big deal. It is hard to sputter an absorber layer that has very good performance. I believe that is the route that my old friend Kannan Ramanathan is trying at Mia Sola and it is difficult. So, these guys are going with the ink and again, the real problem is uniformity and reproducibility. Hence the emphisis on "electrically matching cells".

I am not saying that this approach has no merit. I actually believe that this is going to be a very fruitful path. But I also am quite convinced that a careful reading of all of the data that they have put out, not the pieces in the Times or the Guardian, as well as my knowledge of the state of the art in the field leads me to believe that the current boom of excitement surrounding this is unjustified at this time. Take it for what it is worth. I just wouldn't feel comfortable knowing what I know if I didn't offer this warning since I know how badly most of us want this stuff to work.

Thank you for the detailed reply.
It is possible that a "dollar a Watt" PV breakthrough would lead to so much BAU complacency that it could cause more harm than good.
There's truly nothing that can replace our thousand-barrel-per-second oil habit, not on the scale of my lifetime, anyway.

One aspect of their press release is that their target price is $0.99/Watt. That is not their current price. If I recall, First Solar is producing at a cost of $1.25 or $1.17/Watt at the factory gate. Their price includes reclaiming their panels and I think it is still above $2.50/Watt or so. I doubt that Nanosolar will go below that price soon. They have some time before we actually hear much about what they are charging since their poduction is all sold out.


The first Solar stuff has the virtue of being real. CdTe is a much more forgiving material system.

The main gist of the press release was that they are shipping in quantity, so, I suppose one wants to look to Germany to see of power is produced. One thing I like about First Solar is the way they have been working with NREL on durability issues. I wonder if Nanosolar is doing the same thing only under an NDA?



Crystalline PV modules max out at 21% efficient in the field, if I'm not mistaken.

42% crystal solar and thin film mix is not available in the field at this time. They give you twice as much power pre square foot but cost a lot more than twice as much at this time. Vanilla crystal silicon makes more sense at only 21% or whatever.
If Nanosolar takes away the cost per watt market then the power per square meter market will be of intense interest to the rest of the solar panel makers, or at least the ones that want to stay in business.
I'd wait a few months to see if Nanosolar is for real. Because if it is then you can get cheaper power from them or more power from your roof from the refocussed crystal silicon solar panel people with high efficiency panels. Who presumably are now busy working on the next generation because they know more than we do about what Nanosolar is doing.
I'm interested in concentrating solar photovoltaic. Nanosolar or other rooftop solar isn't in my market segment. I hope they are successful.

I installed a grid tied PV system last year in California and would not have been able to do so without the subsidy; it would have been prohibitively expensive. I put in 2kW at an installed cost of $3.45 per watt, and I expect payback in, maybe, 14-16 years. More confounding is that if I never used a lot of electricity in the first place (which puts me into the top-tiered electric rates), I would never break even.

The main issue I have is that the subsidies in no way mirror European feed-in laws. To cover my costs, I am gambling that 1) electric utility rates increase over time and 2) that there is no major price reduction in PV technologies.

I expect #1 to hold true; hell, I'm a longtime TOD follower (but this is my first post). As for #2, because the California subsidy is nearly 40%, if there is anything above, say, a 50% drop in the future price of PV panels then I certainly lost. But with a guaranteed rate of return, I and presumably a whole lot of others would have turned to PV much earlier or would begin to install...which is exactly what's happening in Germany today.

You can be sure that if Nanosolar drops production costs, then the subsidies will dry they have to overcome that hurdle along with the additional differential against fossil sources.

Does $1/watt mean just the PV "panel" itself, or is it installed cost, with whatever mounting, wiring, contract labor, inverter, metering, overcurrent protection, disconnects and inspection fees that may exist? PV panels today are roughly $4.25 a watt (without the subsidy).

No worries!

Right. If Nanosolar gets their process working but their power efficiency is still half that of silicon, they could give their panels away free and it would still pay to go to silicon.
But for new houses where the panel is integrated into the roof it's a different story. Nanosolar is the way to go.
They will get the bugs out of their production line or they won't. Remember Ovonics? They also produced actual working cells. Just not economical ones.

Remember Ovonics? They also produced actual working cells. Just not economical ones.

And kept making statements about how they were gonna get cheaper in bulk - just like Nanosolar

I have been fortunate to have worked on nearly all of the advanced photvoltaic technologies under active research today. CdTe, CI(G)S, High efficiency multi-junction III-V concentrator cells, organic devices Gretzel cells etc. They all show great promise. But if I were buying a system today for my home, I would purchase single crystal silicon cells from either Sun Power or Sanyo.

My boat has a Siemens solar array which supplies all my energy needs including refer, microwave via inverter, lights, ham radio, autopilot. Cost about $4000 all in. Installed by me. Fuel savings repaid the costs in 6 years. To generate fuel at sea costs 8 times as much as dockside.
When electrical costs go up, PV is a very simple economic equation. And once installed, the cost does not continue to rise. We'll see more solar PV as energy prices rise.

To generate fuel at sea costs 8 times as much as dockside.

Did you mean to say, generate electricity? I'm guessing you're comparing it to generating it by diesel or some such.

Sorry for sloppy wording. Yes, you are correct. To make electricity via diesel generator cost 8X the cost of paying for electricity provided by PG&E at the marina. Nice thing is I can leave my boat for a month and food will still be cold in the refer and batteries are full.

The cost of coal is more than just money. Much, much, more. Do I really need to go down the list? I didn't think so.

My own comments on Nanosolar, including additional perspective on its efficiency ratings can be found here:

"The main advantages of Nanosolar's technique are its relatively high speed and the highly precise manufacturing process. "
Thanks to the oil and coal they use to make the panels! What happens when all the Tellurium and fossil energy is exausted? Answer: not cheaper than coal (and by then coal will be way way more expensive.)

Now, we MIGHT be able to use the baseload, high EROEI electricity from hydroelectric dams to make the panels, assuming we're even smart enough to plan ahead to do something like that, which I doubt.

What I'm really wondering is how long these things are going to stand up to the forces of entropy and the elements until their efficiency is much lower than 19.5%. They're cheap because of their thiness, not just in terms of price, but durability as well. And how are we going to balance this for dawn, dusk, night, winter, etc? Again, Hydro can be used as baseload, but that's still only 6% U.S. electricity. Still 100 times more than we get from solar, though...

I personally expect coal prices to rise dramatically in the next ten years as it becomes obvious that oil has peaked (and gas supplies are also tight). And it looks like solar will be practical and scalable in the same time frame.
I think there will be plenty of energy from coal available (for several decades)to provide baseline power and manufacture solar cells, while at the same time the accountants are giving solar the tick as the way to go.
The real test will be in moving to solar as a source of baseline and not just peak power, so you can actually use solar energy to make more solar cells.
This would depend on battery, thermal storage,NH3 storage technology. My gut feeling is we are still 20 years away from a complete sustainable system.

No links, no proof, that's just my overall impression from my reading.

I'm mystified by people who think a "low-energy future" is inevitable.
Although coal supplies will get tight mid-century and oil will start declining soon, a future based on hydro/nuclear/coal baseline with solar for peak loads and PHEV/ammonia/CTL-diesel hybrids for transport looks plausible to me.
Over time we can develop better storage for solar power generation and phase out the coal (it will get too expensive anyway).

$1 per watt is for the cells only. Currently solar cells cost are only about half of the total installation costs. Of course many people will tell you that the other half of the costs is going to drop by a lot as well due to economies of scale, building integrated PV, standardization of connections etc. These predictions may be true, although insofar as economies of scale means the Home Depot or some other corporate behemoth paying dirt to installers this is not a path to a prosperous future for the masses.

Also there is the small problem that solar energy is not dispatchable and insolation varies on both short and long time scales. What will the real cost of intermittent renewable energy be when coal supplies start to decline? This question is rarely addressed with any seriousness on TOD.

This is indeed wonderful news: Solar cells taking a major cost cut per unit of power. Having been involved in the solar power industry back in the late 70s, I have to say that the costs associated with solar are many:

* The Cells
* Power Inverters
* Metering to feed surplus power back to the grid
* Protective mounting
* Periodic cleaning to maintain efficiency
* Risk of hail damage and other hazards
* Frisbees, squirrels, etc.

I am making two points with this list. First every form of power has its drawbacks and weaknesses that contribute to the lifetime cost of that technology. Second, for Nanosolar to succeed where others have only done so-so, they must address the reliability and redundancy issues in such a way that ultra-thin panels can withstand reasonable amounts of damage and still produce acceptable amounts of power.

Since it seems Peak Energy is not too far distant, the economics favoring wind and solar are at hand.

This is amazingly good news if it proves out. Right now wind turbines are about $1/watt for the faceplate value and they yield around 1/3rd of that in very good placement. This pricing puts solar right on the same footing ... we've got a 48'x30' barn roof that has very good exposure all day long - doesn't make sense at the current $5/watt price point, but if that falls to the point where I can get a 200 watt panel for $199 + shipping I think we'd find a way to make it happen, adding 200 watts/month until we carried our daytime load. The incremental installation and easier placement than wind should make for quick market penetration, assuming the stuff really works. Per the article that looks like production to me, but it isn't really until I've got a sample here to try :-)

I'm not sure about the situation near you, but the solar installers in my area are booming. The Andalay system by Akeena is pretty sweet if you ask me. Suntech is supposed to start distributing the Andalay systems in Japan, Europe, and Australia starting this month -

"Andalay improves on conventional solar panels by including built-in wiring, grounding and racking designed to provide maximum rooftop performance for consumers while minimizing installation costs for solar system installers. The result is a rooftop solar power system with superior built-in reliability with outstanding aesthetics in an all-black, streamlined appearance," said Barry Cinnamon. "Moreover, an installed Andalay system uses 70 percent fewer parts and requires 25 percent fewer attachment points than traditional solar systems, meaning better long-term performance."

The world is running at 15 trillion watts, that means 15 trillion watts every second of the year. Solar is at best reliable only 25 percent of the time because we have nights, cloudy days etc. There also need to be some kind of storage of energy to be used at nights and other times its not being produced. So lets assumed a ratio of 5 to 1. So we need 75 trillion watts capacity. At a realistic price of $3 per watt that means $225 trillion.

Can anybody tell what is the maximum project in human history and how much humanity had expand on it in today's dollars?

That compares to nuclear costs, say for the new Westinghouse AP-1000 reactor projected at around $1.25watt.
They run at around 90% capacity.
15 trillion watts would cost around $21trillion.
Projects never come in for what they are projected to, so take that with a pinch of salt, but OTOH there are other possibilities to increase performance with this generation of reactors like the MIT doughnut-shaped fuel.
A heck of a lot of money, but way cheaper than solar PV.

About two thirds of that 15 TW is wasted owing to reliance on thermal technologies. So, you want to cut your estimate to $75 trillion. Further, you want to use a reasonable estimate for the cost of the bulk of the solar panels installed which will be in the neighborhood of $1.25/Watt (about $0.3/Watt to make the panels). So, now you are down to $31 trillion. The world uses oil at more than 80 million barrels a day so at $100/bbl for thirty years the cost would be $88 trillion. So, solar is cheaper than replacing oil only, something that most people here think needs to be done in any case. You are correct that a renewable infrastructure will want some storage, but in the case of transportation, we'd expect that to be built-in and not a part of the cost of power. Also, really high capacity transmission can be quite efficient over continent spanning distances because higher voltages can be used. The radius of curvature of the transmission line is larger so that corona discharge is less limiting. Storage requirements might be reduced by taking advantage of this as well since power can be delivered to areas where the Sun has set or has not yet risen.


Would you be interested in helping get solar powered mobility networks deployed?

The problem with switching to electric power - whether from solar, nuclear, wind, or other - is that the batteries in the cars cost 5 to 10 times more per mile than the electricity. So the cost estimates for switching to solar miss the problem with batteries.

Development of better battery technologies is more important than the development of cheaper photovoltaics or cheaper nuclear power.

Hi WisdomfromPakistan
Please consider and would you like to help build in Pakistan solar powered transportation networks. Current repetitive, urban transport is 2% efficient. Modernized Morgantown systems use 200 watt-hours to travel a mile carrying up to 4 people or 1200 pound of cargo. Solar collectors, 2-meters wide mounted over that rail gather 2.5 million watt-hours in a typical day (16% efficient solar collectors, 5 hours of effective noon sun).

That is enough power for 12,500 vehicle miles. Solar is quite effective when used where gathered.

World GDP in 2007 was 40 trillion dollars out of which 15 trillion dollars were from industry. That is at the peak energy.

I'd love to get feedback & comments on this Australian research - sounds very promising

Aussies make solar power cell breakthrough
May 01, 2007 06:51pm
CHEAPER solar power could be available in a few years due to pioneering work by Australian scientists on an improved solar cell.
Researchers at the University of New South Wales ARC Photovoltaics Centre of Excellence have developed a means of increasing the cell's light-trapping ability by up to 50 per cent.
They say that apart from a home's cooking and hot-water heating needs, such improvement to an electric solar system could power an average house with panels covering 10 square metres.
"Overall, our new solar cells increase power generated by 30 per cent," said Dr Kylie Catchpole, co-author of the study.
As part of the process, UNSW researchers, led by Phd student Supriya Pillai, place a thin film (about 10 nanometres thick) of silver onto a solar cell and heat it to 200C.
The film breaks into tiny 100-nanometre "islands" of silver and raises its light-trapping efficiency.
With this the team can move from thick expensive silicon "wafers" to cheaper "thin film" cells with less silicon.
"Most thin-film solar cells are between eight and 10 per cent efficient, but the new technique could increase efficiency to between 13 and 15 per cent," Dr Catchpole said.
"If they're below 10 per cent efficient, then you can't really afford to install them, because it would take up too much of your roof area, for example, to power your house."
It can start to become commercially viable once the converting efficiency exceeds 10 per cent.
Silicon is a poor absorber of light. That affects the cost of solar technology, as up to 45 per cent of its cost is due to the cost of silicon.
Prices for an installed solar system for an average house could fall 25 per cent from $20,000 to $15,000 once the technology filters through, the researchers say.
There are only 30,000 Australian households – out of eight million – which have solar panels for electricity.
If this solar system is used with a solar heating system for water and cooking, the excess power generated can be sent back to the power grid.
"You connect with the electricity grid system where you have no batteries and then sell back your excess electricity," Dr Catchpole said.
"You are then not wasting any electricity, similar to Michael Mobb's house (in Chippendale, Sydney)," she said.
The report of the breakthrough will appear in the upcoming issue of the Journal of Applied Physics.

Although this is far from a magic bullet, much outstanding work on silicon solar cells has been done over the years at The University of New South Wales. Dr. Marten Green has been a leading researcher in the field for decades.

With all of the buzz surrounding thin film devices, what is going on under the radar is work being done on thin film silicon. This will necessarily have to employ light trapping technologies because of the relatively poor absorption coefficient. You need the photons to take many passes through the film in order to be sure of being absorbed when the film is very thin.

One potential way to make high quality thin silicon is to use the same sort of technology that IBM is using for their SOI computer chips. Ion implantation where you lift off a thin film onto a "handle wafer" that may not even be a semiconductor. In this manner, what is now a 250 µm thick wafer could in the future become 20, 12 µm Silicon on glass wafers. All with over 20% efficiency. Si is the third most abundent element on the planet, has a native oxide that passivates the surface and millions of man hours of past R&D experience behind it. With thin film silicon you could have the advantages of a thin film with the advantages of a simple material system.

Lots of good stuff in this thread! Unfortunately I think all of these cost models are incomplete. Here are a few factors that would IMO make the models more realistic--some of which were alluded to upthread.

1. The cost of coal will rise substantially over time. How fast? It all depends. Personally I am quite persuaded by the argument from the Energy Watch Group that in terms of energy content, the U.S. passed its peak of coal production in 1998, and that the absolute peak of global coal production will likely be around 2020. If you installed a solar system right now, 2020 would be about halfway through its 25 year warranty period. How does this factor affect the total cost of ownership / ROI?

On a related note, most solar buying decisions assume that the cost of grid power will increase in the future at about the same rate as it has in the past. I believe that once peaking scenarios are taken into account, this will prove to be a very bad assumption.

In short, the economics of solar are nearly always miscalculated.

2. The cost of solar will continue to decline, esp. in the thin film arena. I saw my first Nanosolar dog-and-pony show about two years ago, and their predictions of time to market and manufacturing capacity have proved to be overstated. That still seems to be the case. But would I bet against them in, say, a 5-year timeframe, considering that they raised $150 m in private capital right out of the gate? Not on your life.

3. The hidden subsidy of not assigning any cost to emissions for fossil fuel burners is going away. How fast, and by what mechanism, remains to be seen. But I have little doubt that its days are numbered. Once those costs are fully assigned, it will radically change the economics of solar. (Especially if the knock-on effects of uncosted emissions are taken into account...e.g., loss of healthy ecosystems, loss of natural resource dependent industry, health effects, etc.)

4. We are still in the earliest days of incentives! We can't assume very much at all about the structure & pricing of incentives going forward. I believe they will become much more favorable as it becomes clear that today's largely coal-fired grid is untenable.

5. Solar PV is not a be-all and end-all solution. It's best for peak applications, not baseload capacity. I believe that in, say, two or three decades, baseload capacity will be largely satisfied by geothermal (98% uptime, zero emissions) and large-scale CSP with storage. It's silly to run calculations that assume solar PV will satisfy ALL of our power needs. The final mix of energy solutions will involve many different technologies, each suited to its best application. We should be comparing geothermal to the coal-fired grid, and solar PV to natural gas fired peaker plants. In reality, we should mainly look at the economics of solar PV against peak grid power pricing only.

6. The structure of the grid itself is changing. I predict that many innovations will change the way the grid works in the coming years, including islanding for micro-grids, smart metering, on-demand load shifting, progressive pricing, more deregulation, and so on. Most of these changes will ultimately benefit solar.

7. In a best-case scenario for solar, where individual communities can function using their own distributed generation and storage within self-islanding micro-grids (a very possible scenario), and then take into account the benefits that such an architecture offers over the current regime (my entire town was without power for four days this past week, with lots of business shut down and lots of us unable to work), it radically changes the cost calculus of solar. But nobody ever does that...just as nobody figures the opportunity costs of wars for oil!


A few comments.
Assume for the moment we ignore SWs posts. (I find he makes a credible case that NanoSolar will likely not deliver as expected). While 430MW/year is quite aggressive for any solar startup, the current polysilicon market is more than ten times that size, and expected to roughly double in each of the next two years. The effect of NanoSolar's production on market clearing price would be pretty small. We will see if demand is elastic enough to begin to bring down the price -it has been roughly flat for the past several years.

Midterm future grid supply will be diverse. Let us think about what a reasonable mix would look like.
Pure baseline: Nuclear plus geothermal, plus aging coal plants, and maybe carbon capture coal. Possibly supplemented by biomass burning plants.

Time varying renewables: wind, solar PV, solar thermal. The latter may come with several hours of storage.

Peaking plants: to cover demand spikes, and extended periods of low availability in the time varying sector. Mostly NG trending towards biogas, regionally supplemented by hydro.

This leaves scope for a lot of different technologies, no one of which will likely be stand alone. There should be room for all sorts of different solutions. Nuclear need not be the enemy of solar or say wind. The only large competition near term is for research dollars amoung the myriad possibilities.

It is hard to make a good case for nuclear power. The EROEI is low and it is pretty inflexible so that it can't get out of the way of less expensive power very easily. Beyond that it has unresolved issues with safety and waste.


I would, again, like to point out, that I'm not bashing NanoSolar's approach. I do indeed think it has promise and in time will prove to be a success. I am however cautioning that I think that the articles in the Times and then the one in the Guardian created the impression that they are further along on the development path than is actually the case, and that there are some very challenging technological issues that need to be addressed before this becomes a reality.

Distributed generation with PVs can lessen the need for peaker plants in the summer and extend the life of transformers in the grid. When you consider that summer loads can be more than 3 times the nominal load, the heat generated in transformers during the summer can shorten their life considerably.

DaveMart is a pretty big proponent of Nuclear. He can hopefully provide some good references. IMO the waste issue has been vastly overblown. And any decent fuel cycle, would burn up any of the fissionable "waste" products as well, most likely via reprocessing and reuse. The currently used fuel cycle is grossly inefficient. As a baseline component it would be a good complement to time variable renewables. Even with large scale grids, time variability will occosionally leave some low power periods. Having a solid baseline, plus some storable fuel based peaking should make time variable sources competitive as more than just marginal levels of penetration. This won't be much of an issue for a few years, but if renewables are to become a major source of power -and we are to acheive carbon neutrality, the issue will become increasingly important.

Bill Hanaghan does a good job off looking at the alledged 'issues' with nuclear here:
If you allow for externalities, cheaper than any alternative bar natural gas, which is in short supply:
Most of the hype about renewables rely on figures for peak watts, which don't often happen - so to get the costs per hour for wind, multiply by about 3 for a very good location, then figure in the cost for a massive extension of the grid to reduce variability.
For solar in the North of Europe, during Dec, Jan and Feb you get around 3% of the rated power - don't even think about boiling a kettle with your 2.5Kw rated system in those months!
Solar thermal panels on residences work fine, although they have less input in the winter, and would go well with a nuclear source of baseload.
Expensive energy kills a lot of people every year in Northern climates, far more than would die even were we to have one Chernobyl a year!
Radiation does not have the effects at low doses we thought - form an accident all the figures of 'millions of deaths' and so on are based on the idea that any dose at all had severe effects across the generations.
Here is an ex-radiation safety officer on the subject, DanM:
The days are past when any country which wanted a nuclear weapon could be stopped form having it.
Look on the net for a 'How to' guide.
Umpteen solutions to this 'problem' - see Bill's site - when anti-nuclear bods major on this by a 'solution' they mean something which would be acceptable to them, when they have already decided that nothing will do.
The radioactive uranium from which the radioactive waste was made was stored by nature for billions of years entirely without reference to whether it would seep into ground water.
New reactors would produce a fraction of the waste that the old ones did anyway:
This new Fuji reactor under development would so even better:
and burn around 50% of fuel, against around 1% at present, with very low wastes, which would decay in a much shorter time.
And BTW, anti-nuke people like to say 'this technology is unproven' - sure, there is some development to be done, but nothing remotely as speculative as many of the proposals for massive renewable networks, which would take years and lots and lots of money - that is a a whole different ball-game to the incremental change needed for most nuclear technologies.
Don'#t get me wrong, I am a supporter of renewables - the recent MIT report indicated the potential of hot dry rock geothermal, whilst high-altitude wind would be many times cheaper than current power sources.
But we don't currently know how to do this, and should not predicate our energy systems on the assumption that we will be successful in their development, although we should vigorously investigate them.
We should be pushing hard anyway for the renewables which do work in a reasonably cost-effective way, such as biogas, residential solar thermal panels and heat pumps.

Again, my understanding is that most of us live in countries which are more or less democratic.

If the people want nuclear power, they should have it. If they don't, they shouldn't.

Why not allow each area to vote on what if anything will be their power source?

I'd also like a vote on whether I want to subsidise hopelessly uneconomic 'renewables' such as the windmills which are cluttering up the landscape in the UK, and provide little meaningful input as it is so unreliable.
I'm all for sensible renewables such as residential solar thermal, but the feed-in tariff is an absurd way of subsidising research - most of the windmills which have been put up here are going to eat up taxpayers money for 25 years under a guarantee, and incidentally guarantee reliance on fossil fuels burnt in an inefficient manner as you can't afford to implement the best co-generation turbines in a facility which will only rarely be used.
Incidentally, for those who foresee major dislocation following peak oil, we won't have wind-power to rely on, as the copper cables from them are an attractive target for people who have no money, and indefensible due to the dispersed nature of windpower.
If you want to promote research, give a grant, don't indefinitely subsidise production.
German solar PV power is even crazier, and gives you around 3% of the rated power in the winter.

I agree that you should have a say about feed-in tariffs for solar which you don't want. Likewise, I'd like a say about roads I don't use and which no-one will use in twenty years, about coal-fired stations warming the planet which I don't buy power from but still have to pay for, about subsidies for an extension to an already-oversized shopping mall, subsidies to extend exports of coal at "record high prices", of about bailing out investors in dodgy finance companies that I never invested in, and so on and so forth.

Each electorate or local council area should get its electricity how it wants to, and fund it in the way it wants to. It's called democratic power-sharing.

It's fantastic to see a post about Nanosolar in particular and thin film in general. I'd just like to add a couple of points:

1. Nanosolar has SOLD OUT of its production capacity through 2009.
2. The extremely thin coating in CIGS makes a VERY SMALL impact on total resources. It's the primary reason nanotechnology was incorporated in the CIGS design. It's comparable to platinum in catalytic converters for cars. The coating in a catalytic converter is very thin so the overall volume of platinum -- a rare and precious substance in its own right -- is comparatively small.

I would point out that unless you are willing to state precisely what your production capacity is, stating that it is sold out is of little consequence.

The Nano in Nano solar has nothing to do with the thinness of the film and hence the amount of Cu In Ga and Se used. All CI(G)S solar cells are thin film devices and use relatively the same amounts of these elements.

The nano in nano solar refers to how they deposit the thin film. Instead of using vacuum evaporation of the thin film, they grind these elements into a fine (nano) powder, mix it with an organic solvent forming an ink and then deposit this ink on a foil. So, the "Nano" refers to the size (10^-9) of the particles in the ink, not the thickness of the film.