Efficiency gains could make solar half the price of coal by 2030

By Robin Whitlock on January 4, 2013

The dollar cost per watt of solar PV has fallen by 7% per annum over the last 30 years.

An article in Scientific American reports that scientists have observed a principle similar to Moore’s Law at work in solar economics.

Moore’s Law is a concept applicable to computer hardware which stipulates that chip processing power doubles every 18 months due to the doubling of transistors in integrated circuits every two years. Researchers from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory at the US Department of Energy have been studying the processes at work in solar power and are now starting to ask whether a similar concept can be applied to solar panels.

Logarithmic efficiency growth of solar electronics has meant that the price per watt of solar modules has fallen from $22 in 1980 to a current level of $3 while data obtained in 2010 indicates that prices are also ahead of the three decade trend. Experienced manufacturers have achieved consistent cost reductions and improvements in solar cell efficiency with scientists achieving an efficiency level as high as 41% in lab tests. This would have been inconceivable in the 1980’s. In essence, solar cell manufacturers are improving their ability to fabricate solar at a cheaper cost.

The implications are staggering. If the trend continues for another 8-10 years, which seems increasingly likely, solar will be as cheap as coal with the added benefit of zero carbon emissions. If the cost continues to fall over the next 20 years, solar costs will be half that of coal. These predictions may in fact be too conservative given that First Solar have reported internal production costs of 75 cents (46 pence) per watt with an expectation of 50 cents (31 pence) per watt by 2016.

When applied to electricity prices this predicts that solar generated electricity in the US will descend to a level of 12 cents (7 pence) per kilowatt hour by 2020, possibly even 2015 for the sunniest parts of America.

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