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Solar power may be cheaper than other sources within 5 years, GE says

WASHINGTON — Solar power may be cheaper than electricity generated by fossil fuels and nuclear reactors within three to five years because of innovations, said Mark M. Little, the global research director for General Electric Co.

"If we can get solar at 15 cents a kilowatt-hour or lower, which I'm hopeful that we will do, you're going to have a lot of people that are going to want to have solar at home," Little said. The 2009 average U.S. retail rate per kilowatt-hour for electricity ranged from 6.1 cents in Wyoming to 18.1 cents in Connecticut, according to Energy Information Administration data released in April.

GE, based in Fairfield, Conn., announced in April that it had boosted the efficiency of its thin-film solar panels to a record 12.8 percent. Improving efficiency, or the amount of sunlight converted to electricity, would help reduce the costs without relying on subsidies.

The thin-film panels will be manufactured at a plant that GE intends to open in 2013. The company said in April that the factory will have about 400 workers and make enough panels each year to power about 80,000 homes.

Solar panel makers from Arizona to China are expanding factories to add more cost savings that analysts say will sustain the industry's expansion. Installations may increase by as much as 50 percent in 2011, worth about $140 billion, as cheaper panels and thin film make developers less dependent on government subsidies, Bloomberg New Energy Finance said. The cost of solar cells, the main component in standard panels, has fallen 21 percent this year.

Most solar panels use silicon-based photovoltaic cells to transform sunlight into electricity. The thin-film versions, made of glass or other material coated with cadmium telluride or copper indium gallium selenide alloys, account for about 15 percent of the $28 billion in worldwide solar panel sales.

First Solar Inc., based in Tempe, Ariz., is the world's largest producer of thin-film panels, with $2.6 billion in yearly revenue.

Little also said the U.S. transition to a full smart grid will take "many, many years" to develop.

A complete smart grid would consist of millions of next-generation meters installed in businesses and homes, appliances that adjust their energy use when prices change, and advanced software to help utilities control electricity flows, he said.

"I think it's going to be a long time. … But it is coming," he said.

Solar efficiency

A collaboration of scientists is aiming to revolutionize how solar energy is collected and converted into electricity. The group includes the Idaho National Laboratory, MicroContinuum Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., and professors from the University of Missouri and the University of Colorado. Tapping solar energy now relies on photovoltaic panels, but that technology can take advantage of only about one-third of the radiation spectrum in sunlight. The research group is taking a different approach that uses 90 percent of the spectrum by using tiny antennae in paper-thin film. The approach is still in development, but the group is far enough along in the work, which began in 2005, that its members are confident it will perform as expected and eventually be commercially successful. The approach relies on nanotechnology, which is the manipulation of material at the molecular level.

McClatchy Newspapers

Solar power may be cheaper than other sources within 5 years, GE says 05/26/11 [Last modified: Thursday, May 26, 2011 9:09pm]
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