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Making Solar Cheaper Without Using Better Cells

Costs could drop by as much as 30 percent with other improvements.
February 5, 2010

The cost of solar power could be cut 30 percent without improving the performance of individual solar cells, says Daniel Alcombright, vice president for North America at Solon Corporation, based in Berlin.

At the ReTech 2010 conference in Washington, DC, last week, Alcombright laid out his company’s plans for cutting costs and increasing power output, which will result in lower costs per kilowatt hour over the lifetime of solar panels, making it more competitive with conventional sources of electricity.

About half of the cost of solar power comes from the cost of the solar panel itself. The rest comes from installation costs, the costs of electronics for converting DC to AC for the grid, and other things like the cost of land and maintenance.

When Alcombright was first hired at Solon a few months ago, the company sent him to a solar installation project, to give him an idea of how things went. He saw plenty of ways things could be improved. For example, highly-paid electricians spend hours constructing assemblies for conduits, when such things could be built for less in a factory. Solon is working on fixing this, and making other changes: Larger solar modules with quick mount frames could also reduce overall construction costs. So could standardized plans for solar farms, so that each new project doesn’t have to be engineered anew. Finally, low cost tracking systems and software for optimizing their performance in different locations and from season to season could increase power output from the same solar panels.

These sorts of inefficiencies are evidence of an industry that’s still in its infancy–but they also suggest there’s a lot that can be done to make solar cheaper, even without major advances in solar cell efficiency.

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