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Energy COOL: Direct Wafer

August 3rd, 2010 · No Comments

Since diving into the deep end when it comes to energy issues, almost every day sees new fascinating concepts, approaches, and technologies. Fascinating … exciting … even hope inspiring at times. And, as well, as the passion builds, so many of these are truly Energy COOL.

The concept of Silver Bullet solutions concerns me and the tendency to jump on lab announcements as ‘the solution to all our problems’ is a real one in the techno-optimist portion of those concerned about climate change and our energy challenges. These concerns lead to hesitation as to whether to report on developments or not, even as there are so many existing ideas filtering out from the labs. That hesitation, however, has likely led to under discussion of the power of ARPA-E and the U.S. government’s (the U.S. taxpayers’) targeted investments to leap frog the nation toward transformational energy opportunities.

One of our investments was made in the solar photovoltaic company 1366 Technologies. First off, why “1366”?

Covering 1% of Continental U.S. with 20% efficient PV systems would provide all the energy needs of the US.  Covering 0.2% of the surface would generate all the electricity that the US consumes. To put this number in perspective: roads cover 1.5% of the U.S.

At 1366 Technologies we were so impressed with size of the available solar resources that we named the company after Earth’s Solar Constant of 1366 W/m2.

That $4 million taxpayer investment is targeting a path to essentially eliminate silicon wastage in the production of solar panels.  Rather than creating a large slab and cutting it up into thin wafers (with all the ‘silicon dust’ as waste), 1366 is striving to make wafers directly from molten silicon — eliminating that waste and the costly cutting process.  This process could cut the solar PV panel price in half, almost immediately, which would drop the cost of installed PV panels by easily 1/4th. (Sigh, having just put up my Solar PV panels, if I’d only waited a little longer … this is one of the problems for the solar world, those wanting to go solar are always hearing about and salivating about the next great thing.  In this case, a government incentive primed the pump in the solar business in my neck of the woods.)

Writ large, solar prices have been dropping by 10 percent per year since 1972.   What was $5 per kilowatt during the Carter Administration is in the range of 1/25th that price now. Solar PV is on the brink of grid parity. A rapid 25% drop in the price will make this far more attractive for putting on the roof, especially in areas with higher electricity prices. And, the bump in business will create business quantity that will allow slicing away at the other 75% of costs which include, for example, labor and the difficulty of business development. Simply using that 7% cost reduction per year would halve the price of solar PV before the end of the decade and, according to some predictions, put solar PV on the roof below the cost of wholesale coal electricity.

The other direct advance, that will impact the price of produced power and installed cost per watt of capacity is that 1366 claims that there wafers won’t just be thinner and have less waste in production, but will also be significantly more efficient.

Thus, the company’s founder has laid out some ambitious targets and claims:

if the technology successfully scales up, Emanuel Sachs says, it could significantly bring down the cost of solar electricity. Sachs says that today, solar cells cost about $2.10 per watt generated. When manufactured at a commercial scale, the first cells incorporating his new technology will cost $1.65 per watt. Planned improvements will bring down this cost to about $1.30 a watt, he says. To compete with coal, the cost will need to come down to about $1 a watt, something that Sachs predicts can be achieved by 2012 with further improvements in antireflection coatings and other anticipated advances.

In other words, the costs of the ‘other’ things will be driven down perhaps through volume (more business drives down unit costs, in general), but that less work will be necessary for each watt capacity put on a roof.

[NOTE: The DOE discussion asserts that the 1366 approach could cut the cost of installed Solar PV by 50%.  The cost of PV onto a rooftop runs from $4+ per watt and up (and is $5-7 per watt on residential in the DC area right now).  The 1366 Technologies approach attacks the $2 (or so) attributable to the PV panels themselves — driving, as per Sachs’ words, a reduction to the $1.65 range and then to roughly $1.30 per watt with $1 possible. I have a question into DOE and 1366 because the mathematics don’t seem to work out.  The wafers are roughly 50% of the cost of the solar panel but the solar panels are only a portion of the costs for putting solar on the roof.  Cut silicon wafer costs by 75+% and that is a tremendously important advance but it, again, could foster roughly a 20-25% reduction in the total system cost directly while enable, as per the comment before this note, increased business to carve down the costs in other arenas.  But, there are many other things that need to occur before a 50% reduction occurs across all the system costs.

Note this discussion: which shows a 1366 Technologies target of $1 for the panels and $2 for installation and profit for an installed price of 18 cents per kwh delivered which is ‘grid parity’ for the retail price of electricity for some markets in American.  This is a significant drop but not “50%” .]

In the shadow of aggressive Senate legislation action on Climate Change legislation, as evidenced by Senator Reid (again) punting on forcing through weak-kneed legislation, and with ever worsening news from the science front (Sayonara Miami), it is perhaps a time to engage in some techno-optimism because the other options for positive change are withering away.

By dramatically lowering the cost of photovoltaic cells, this manufacturing process could enable the United States to add 600 GW in solar energy production and save approximately 694 million metric tons of annual carbon dioxide emissions. If successful, this project could increase domestic energy production and generate many new jobs in the solar photovoltaic industry.

If we want to eliminate coal from the electrical grid, having solar cheaper than coal would go a long way to helping achieve that.

Will 1366 Technologies pay off, will they achieve what they are striving for?  Hopefully but quite possibly not. But this is not the only investment that Americans have made in potentially breakthrough technologies. The video above provides a view on 1366 Technologies. It ends with Secretary of Energy Steven Chu;

We’re asking people to swing from the heels. Sure there will be some failures, but there will some home runs. And, some of those will be grand slams. And, with those grand slams, we can truly transform our energy choices. That is what ARPA-E is about.

Perhaps ARPA-Es greatest problem? It was funded at perhaps 10 percent of where the funding should have been to ensure that clean energy jobs fill the labs.

Hat tip: Dr Arun Majumdar, The Reality of Solar Panels at 50% Cost, DOE Energy Blog

Other 1366 coverage:

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Tags: business practice · department of energy · Energy · energy cool · solar · Solar Energy