Applied Materials’ entry into the market could help push solar toward prices competitive with electricity from conventional sources distributed over the electricity grid. In just the next few years, says Hunter, solar modules made with Applied equipment could produce electricity at a cost similar to the price of electricity in some parts of the United States–15 to 20 cents per kilowatt hour.
“There’s significant potential for reducing costs,” acknowledges Branz. But he says that Applied Materials’ customers will face stiff competition from other technologies. “Amorphous silicon’s efficiencies have to get higher if it’s going to compete in a big way,” he says. Indeed, solar cells using amorphous silicon generate less electricity per square meter, hence take up far more room, than solar cells based on crystalline silicon, which are two to three times more efficient. What’s more, in the next couple of years, more production capacity for crystalline silicon will be coming online, cutting into the current cost advantage for amorphous silicon.
Applied Materials will also face competition from up-and-coming alternatives to silicon, including thin-film solar cells made with more-exotic semiconductors, such as those that use a combination of copper, indium, gallium, and selenium. These, like thin-film silicon, use very little active material and could be produced cheaply, but they have the added advantage of having higher efficiency than thin-film silicon.