The following is a guest essay by Jim Raras, Jr., COO of Inpower Systems.


Every year the biggest players in the solar industry convene at the Solar Power Conference in Long Beach, Calif., to discuss the latest advancements in solar technology. This year, one of the most notable facets of the meetings was what was not said. During a 90 minute CEO panel discussion about the current and future state of the solar industry, the word "breakthrough" was never uttered. Not a surprise to any industry participants, but surely surprising to the average consumer.

The technology-superstar status bestowed on the solar industry by the mainstream press is a serious problem. This media-fed hyperbole has encouraged consumers to wait for advancements rather than purchasing existing systems, which are economically viable and solve real energy problems today.

Traditional consumer technology industries, such as electronics, function according to a price/performance profile. A flat-panel TV or laptop undergoes several upgrades through the course of a year, and as a result, prices will continue to drop every three to six months. Solar industries, on the other hand, are primarily driven by basic supply and demand trends, and photovoltaic technology has changed very little in the last thirty years. The real advance has been the power processors that enable buying and selling of power to the grid by normal consumers — but that technology is here, now, and mature. There is no Moore’s Law effect for solar. Sure, there have been some incremental efficiency gains and prices have dropped a little (though not for the new super-efficient panels), but nothing like Apple’s recent drop in price on iPhones or the steady decline in LCD television prices. Consumers of PV panels needn’t fear obsolescence any time soon.

The media is doing the consumer and the planet a disservice by over-hyping new solar technologies. Even the "major" advances, thin-film and CSP (Concentrating Solar Power), have little impact on residential or light-commercial customers. CSP isn’t used outside of utility-grade systems, given the high demand, cost, and area required. The average consumer or small business doesn’t have the surface area for thin-film — it takes three times the amount of thin films to provide the same wattage as traditional silicon based solar electric.

To provide 100% annual power for an average 3,000 square foot house:

TECHNOLOGY

SURFACE AREA REQUIRED (Sq. Ft.)

PANEL COST TODAY

Silicon solar cells (middle of the road)

500 square feet (easily doable on most homes)

$35-40,000

Thin film solar cells

1,500 square feet (nearly impossible to place)

$40-50,000

Beyond space considerations and cost, the reliability of thin film is unproven. One can be 99% sure that silicon PV will last 30-50 years — it’s been clearly demonstrated. Thin films may only last 10 years — nobody knows its longevity, since it is relatively new to the market. So while thin films and other new technologies add value in specific applications, the best method for the average customer to reduce risk across several fronts (technological, economic, and social) is to act now, not later.

Consumers need to be aware that there are no revolutionizing advancements on the solar front and that PV is a safe and secure investment today. The current solar installation subsidies offered by several major power companies are a huge incentive to act now. Waiting for technology advancements only increases the chance that the subsidies will be discontinued, forcing consumers to pay more to the utility companies in the long run, versus making an investment in generating their own clean power today. Spread the good word — no news is actually good news!