comments_image Comments

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?

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."

See more stories tagged with: