Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Affordable solar?

It’s time to stop thinking of solar energy as a boutique source of power, says Joshua Pearce.

Sure, solar only generates about 1 percent of the electricity in the US. But that will change in a few years, says Pearce, an associate professor of electrical engineering and materials science at Michigan Technological University. The ultimate in renewable energy is about to go mainstream.

It’s a matter of economics. A definitive new analysis by Pearce and his colleagues at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, shows that solar photovoltaic systems are very close to achieving the tipping point in many regions: they can make electricity that’s as cheap— sometimes cheaper—than what consumers pay their utilities.

Here’s why. First, the price of solar panels has plummeted. “Since 2009, the cost has dropped 70 percent,” says Pearce. But more than that, the assumptions used in previous studies have not given solar an even break.

“Historically, when comparing the economics of solar and conventional energy, people have been very conservative,” says Pearce.

To figure out the true cost of photovoltaic energy, analysts need to consider several variables, including the cost to install and maintain the system, finance charges, how long it lasts, and how much electricity it generates. Pearce and his colleagues performed an exhaustive review of the previous studies and concluded that the values given those variables were out of whack.

“It is still a common misconception that solar PV technology has a short life and is therefore extremely expensive,” he said. However, PV panels are solid-state electronic devices with no moving parts and should last a long time. “Based on the latest long-term studies, we should be doing our economic analysis on a 30-year lifetime at minimum,” Pearce said.

In addition, most analyses assume that the productivity of solar panels will drop at an annual rate of 1 percent or more, a huge overestimation, according to Pearce. “If you buy a top-of-the-line solar panel, it’s much less, between 0.1 and 0.2 percent.”

Finally, “The price of the solar equipment has been dropping, so you’d think that the older papers would have higher cost estimates,” Pearce said. “That’s not necessarily the case.” Equipment costs are determined based on dollars per watt of electricity produced. Very recent studies set the amount between $2 and $10. The true cost in 2011, says Pearce, is under $1 per watt for solar panels on the global market, though system and installation costs vary widely. In some parts of the world, solar is already economically superior, and the study concludes that solar will become an increasingly economical source of electricity over expanding geographical regions.

In regions with a burgeoning solar industry, thanks to government programs that pay a premium for renewable energy, there are lots of solar panel installers, which heats up the market. “Elsewhere, installation costs have been high because contractors will do just one job a month,” says Pearce. “Increasing demand and competition would drop installation costs considerably.”

Furthermore, economic studies like Pearce’s don’t generally taken into account solar energy’s intangible benefits, reduced pollution and carbon emissions. And while silicon-based solar panels do rely on a nonrenewable resource—sand—they are no threat to the world’s beaches. It only takes about a sandwich baggie of sand to make a roof’s worth of thin-film photovoltaic cells, Pearce said.

Based on the study, and on the fact that the cost of conventional power continues to creep upward, Pearce believes that solar energy will soon be a major player in the energy game. “It’s just a matter of time before market economics catches up with it,” he says.

The study can be found at: K. Branker, M. J.M. Pathak, J. M. Pearce, “A Review of Solar Photovoltaic Levelized Cost of Electricity”, Renewable & Sustainable Energy Reviews 15, 4470-4482 (2011).

Michigan Technological University ( is a leading public research university developing new technologies and preparing students to create the future for a prosperous and sustainable world. Michigan Tech offers more than 130 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in engineering; forest resources; computing; technology; business; economics; natural, physical and environmental sciences; arts; humanities; and social sciences.

Joshua Pearce | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Power and Electrical Engineering:

nachricht Neutrons pave the way to accelerated production of lithium-ion cells
20.03.2018 | Technische Universität München

nachricht Monocrystalline silicon thin film for cost-cutting solar cells with 10-times faster growth rate fabricated
16.03.2018 | Tokyo Institute of Technology

All articles from Power and Electrical Engineering >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Mars' oceans formed early, possibly aided by massive volcanic eruptions

Oceans formed before Tharsis and evolved together, shaping climate history of Mars

A new scenario seeking to explain how Mars' putative oceans came and went over the last 4 billion years implies that the oceans formed several hundred million...

Im Focus: Tiny implants for cells are functional in vivo

For the first time, an interdisciplinary team from the University of Basel has succeeded in integrating artificial organelles into the cells of live zebrafish embryos. This innovative approach using artificial organelles as cellular implants offers new potential in treating a range of diseases, as the authors report in an article published in Nature Communications.

In the cells of higher organisms, organelles such as the nucleus or mitochondria perform a range of complex functions necessary for life. In the networks of...

Im Focus: Locomotion control with photopigments

Researchers from Göttingen University discover additional function of opsins

Animal photoreceptors capture light with photopigments. Researchers from the University of Göttingen have now discovered that these photopigments fulfill an...

Im Focus: Surveying the Arctic: Tracking down carbon particles

Researchers embark on aerial campaign over Northeast Greenland

On 15 March, the AWI research aeroplane Polar 5 will depart for Greenland. Concentrating on the furthest northeast region of the island, an international team...

Im Focus: Unique Insights into the Antarctic Ice Shelf System

Data collected on ocean-ice interactions in the little-researched regions of the far south

The world’s second-largest ice shelf was the destination for a Polarstern expedition that ended in Punta Arenas, Chile on 14th March 2018. Oceanographers from...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Industry & Economy
Event News

Virtual reality conference comes to Reutlingen

19.03.2018 | Event News

Ultrafast Wireless and Chip Design at the DATE Conference in Dresden

16.03.2018 | Event News

International Tinnitus Conference of the Tinnitus Research Initiative in Regensburg

13.03.2018 | Event News

Latest News

Physicists made crystal lattice from polaritons

20.03.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

Mars' oceans formed early, possibly aided by massive volcanic eruptions

20.03.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

Thawing permafrost produces more methane than expected

20.03.2018 | Earth Sciences

Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>