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No More Clunky Rooftop Panels: The Latest Solar Can Go on Everything From Your Home to Your Car to Yourself

Thin-film solar is revolutionizing the renewables industry. How soon can you get in on the action?
 
 
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Going solar used to mean spending a fortune to purchase massive, unwieldy panels that came with high production and labor costs, as well as low efficiency performance. But that era of renewable energy is coming to a close and being replaced by a lighter, cheaper, more flexible model,thanks to thin-film PV cells.

Solar companies now employ a roll-to-roll manufacturing process that uses non-silicon alternatives such as copper, indium, gallium and selenium to print up cells the way the Federal Reserve Bank prints money. An apt comparison, given that the thin-film niche is expected to corral around 20 percent (and growing) of the overall solar market, which itself is expected to swell to more than $50 billion by 2015.

What's the payoff? A revolutionized energy market, where thin-film solar cells can be placed on everything from your house and car to your person to literally empower your life.

"Thin-film technology has played a significant role in driving down the cost of solar across the industry," American Solar Energy Society Director of Communications Neal Lurie explained to AlterNet. "A couple of years ago, when much of the industry was facing shortages of polysilicon commonly used to produce photovoltaic solar panels, First Solar leapfrogged the industry by producing thin-film solar with a completely different technology, using cadmium telluride.

"While this thin-film approach was less efficient than the more traditional crystalline silicon, it could be produced at much lower costs, more than making up for the lower efficiency. This put downward price pressures across the entire industry, forcing manufacturers to develop efficiencies throughout the entire supply chain. The end result? Lower solar costs for consumers across the globe."

The globe responded in kind. In mid-August, the U.S. Department of Energy and Department of the Treasury kicked off a $2.3 billion campaign to give away tax credits to clean-energy equipment manufacturers. That alone could create more than 100,000 jobs in America, which has more or less outsourced the majority of its conventional manufacturing base to China and other cheap-labor titans.

A few days later, Arizona-based solar powerhouse FirstSolar announced a deal with Southern California Edison to build two thin-film solar photovoltaic (PV) plants in sunny San Bernardino and Riverside counties on federally owned land.

Meanwhile, half a world away, Switzerland's Oerlikon Solar announced that Nano Solar Technology Ltd., a joint venture of the Russian conglomerate Renova Group and Russian Corporation of Nanotechnologies, ordered a production line of 1 million thin-film solar modules annually, the largest order this year in the thin-film silicon PV market.

These recent developments are building upon a solid foundation laid down last year. In 2008, the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) reached a record 19.9 percent efficiency rate using a copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS) thin-film solar cell. And even Time magazine tabbed thin-film solar panels as one of the best inventions of the year.

All of which begs the obvious question: When can we put them on our dashboards, windows and laptops? Or our bodies?

"Solar power of any type, thin-film or conventional, that will actually power your entire car is a long way off," said Treehugger's professional buzz-killer Matthew McDermott. "But it certainly could be implemented today to power parts of the electrical system, like air conditioning, radio and controls.

"In terms of thin-film solar power for your home, there's good evidence that, in certain hazy and overcast conditions, thin-film solar panels can produce more power and cost less than crystalline solar panels. The downside is that it requires more area to get that output."

Sure, that's not the type of sparkling good news that sci-fi nuts and green activists are feverishly looking for to drown out what is shaping up to be a seriously destabilizing fossil-fuel apocalypse. But the good news on solar energy is only going to grow as the months pass.

"Today, solar is branching out beyond traditional rooftop systems," Lurie added. "The Toyota Prius is incorporating solar power into its cooling systems. Backpack and bag manufacturers are starting to incorporate solar technology to recharge laptops. Cell phone manufacturers and GPS producers are looking at how to incorporate solar charging into their technology. It's an exciting time."

More excitement is promised, as governments, finally awake following a collective hangover brought on by decades of hyperconsumption and Hummers, step in and help push the solar boulder down the hill.

In the United States, the Obama administration has openly advocated help for those seeking to go solar, and its cities and municipalities are on board, too, finally catching up to those around the world.

"One of the other big innovations in the solar industry is the increasing availability of solar financing, especially from municipalities," Lurie explained. "In communities like Berkeley, Calif., and Boulder County, Colo., if a homeowner wants to go solar, the city or county will pay the solar installer's up-front costs. The homeowner then has lower utility bills so they can easily pay back the costs of the solar system with their savings. I expect we'll see many more communities implementing similar approaches in the future."

Add in growing investor interest, thanks to the collapse of conventionally dirty economic bubbles in housing and commodities, you have all the right ingredients for a green-rush fueled by an endlessly renewable resource that dominates most of our waking lives.

Now that we've reached the point where even the International Energy Agency is shamelessly talking about peak oil production, investors and nations alike are looking to move beyond petroleum as soon as possible.

"With very few exceptions, governments around the world are stepping in attempting to help move their nations away from fossil fuels to some degree," McDermott said. "Even in the oil-producing states in the Middle East, there's an acknowledgment that something comes after fossil fuels. The bigger issue is whether nations are moving quickly enough the reduce emissions the 25-40 percent by 2020 that scientists say is required to prevent catastrophic climate change. And to do so quickly enough to bring enough renewable energy online to offset the declines in oil and other fossil fuels, which even the International Energy Agency now admits are just over the horizon."

These are major questions, so there's simply no great reason to pop the cork on the champagne and celebrate humanity's dodged bullet. We're still directly in the crosshairs of a disastrous climate change that's already been priced into the market, so to speak.

But the faster we move on innovations like thin-film solar, the better off our lives will be in the long run. There's just no time to waste. Good thing we're already swimming in hope and change.

"The solar boom is here," Lurie concluded. "And it's only going to accelerate."

Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.
 
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