Let me be the last in the greenosphere to note that Nanosolar has shipped its first panels, and it’s no exaggeration to say that this moment will likely be seen as a historical turning point.

For a taste of the breathless anticipation around Nanosolar, read "innovation of the year" over on PopSci (or this recent piece in the NYT). Unlike so many other hyped green tech dreamers, the company is not just talking and researching prototypes. They’re building factories. Once the factory they built in San Jose is up to full production capacity, it will be cranking out more solar panels than every other U.S. plant combined — 430 megawatts worth.

Nanosolar’s claim is that power from their panels will pencil out at about $0.99 a watt. The implications are pretty stunning:

"With a $1-per-watt panel," [CEO Martin Roscheisen] said, "it is possible to build $2-per-watt systems."

According to the Energy Department, building a new coal plant costs about $2.1 a watt, plus the cost of fuel and emissions, he said.

Get that? If he’s right, we already have renewable power cheaper than coal, even if the following costs of coal are excluded:

  • Fuel (i.e. coal itself)
  • the damage done by greenhouse gas emissions
  • the damage done by particulate and mercury pollution
  • the damage done by mining and transporting coal

Even in the face of those unfair advantages on the side of coal power, we now have renewable power cheaper than coal.

Let’s do a little comparison:

  Nanosolar power Clean coal power
Existence: Shipping commercially 10 years out, at minimum
Cost relative to coal: Cheaper 50% more expensive, at minimum
Impact on Appalachian mountains: None Devastating
Impact on air and water: Minimal Devastating
Transmission and distribution costs: Same as coal in a central power plant; near-zero when installed on site Same as coal
Biggest supporters: Venture capitalists, DOE researchers Coal executives, coal-state legislators

Tough call.

In other solar news:

HelioVolt is close behind Nanosolar — they’ve now selected a site for their first manufacturing facility. Competition = good.

A few weeks ago Ausra — a solar thermal company with some groundbreaking innovations under its belt — announced it would open the country’s biggest manufacturing plant for solar thermal equipment in LasVegas. The plant will more than double the world’s solar-thermal power capacity. The solar thermal world is exploding with demand and new suppliers.

To paraphrase Amory Lovins, the age of coal will not end because we run out of coal.