Solar energy will soon "undercut even the cheapest fossil fuels in many regions of the planet"



Whoo! Infrastructure!


I know, I know, don’t read the comments. But geez, on the original article - painful. As the boingboing post points out, solar is a technology. Natural resources cannot compete on price with something that is akin to a CPU, or a hard drive. Solar, batteries, and other alt energy tech, will just continue to improve and drop in price. Is there a Moore’s law for solar panels?


Here’s some back-up from the first few pages of today:

Australia - wind power cheaper and more reliable than natural gas

US - solar now 59% cheaper than predicted in 2010

Austin, TX signed a contract this summer for solar electricity at 5¢/kWh, cheaper than any of the other alternatives, including natural gas.

India - PV cheaper than importing Australian coal

Lastly, renewables and efficiency responsible for 70% of the drop in US carbon emissions since 2007


“Cheapest” is a weird term, because there are so many ways to measure it. I’d be curious to see which standard of measure is employed here.

I’d also like to see how solar currently compares in other qualities, like “Efficiency”. Nuclear is probably always gonna top that chart, of course, but it’d be interesting to see how solar compares to its close neighbors. Cheap is good, but cheap and efficient is best - and last I heard, solar panels aren’t terribly efficient, although supposedly they’re improving on that as time goes on.


One thing to remember: “fuel” is really just an energy storage medium. Whether it’s coal or oil, alcohol, hydrogen or a battery, it’s all just a way to store energy, and all energy on Earth, including fossil fuels (but with the exception of geo-thermal), comes from the sun.

I would think that ultimately hydrogen powered vehicles would be the dominant form of transportation, simply because it’s the most abundant element in the universe, you can extract it from water using solar power, and it can be stored in tanks indefinitely when the sun is obscured by clouds.


What kind of efficiency are you talking about? Conversion efficiency, cost efficiency, space efficiency, something else? And, why is it important? (The answer to the latter may be implicit in the answer to the former.)


Well, geothermal and nuclear.

Edited to add: Oh, and tidal.

There isn’t a Moore’s law for solar panels, because Moore’s law is a description of how hard engineers work to improve the number of lines per inch. Solar panels don’t have that requirement. The only thing that’s ‘improved’ in the last ten years is the ability of China to apply cheap labor to the task of soldering the little foil strips onto the cells and sticking them into frames.

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Well, since we are playing that game, nuclear came from a star, not our star, but a star nevertheless. and geothermal comes from plate tectonics, which in turn is powered by nuclear energy if we take the long view.


A nice start at measuring efficiency seems like energy return on investment or EROI. Wikipedia gives two tables but without much explanation of the differences. Probably better was the summary in Scientific American, which is unfortunately paywalled but at least the sources are explained here.

Something you’ll notice, though, is there can be a lot of variation in the estimates. The very highest estimates for nuclear do indeed beat everything else, but it looks like most attempts to consider how much work it actually takes to get proper fuel drop them much lower. You can see the problem; power sources don’t actually exist as isolated systems, so it’s hard to compare them that way.


Seems like you disregard any and all technological advancements (related to materials science) in the field.

Umm… with the possible exception of

New materials and combinations of materials of various types; Flexible or even transparent panels; technologies based on nature or even made from nature or that try to replicate photosynthesis; integrated energy storage, even some that works at night; printable or even spray-on collectors; using otherwise wasted heat from the sun; using holographic overlays; Hell, we might be able to convert all our flat surfaces or even bend the laws of physics.

It’s not like science has been standing around with their thumbs up their asses- That’s congress’ job.


Actually, as a percentage of the total cost of a solar panel, labor cost has actually gone up over the past decade. The cost of the raw materials themselves, purified silicon in particular, has gone down dramatically and the efficiency of the cells has increased significantly. Of course, a decade ago the price of purified silicon had just started to skyrocket thanks to a shortage caused essentially by shortsightedness on the part of the solar industry, so one could argue that that particular cost reduction is artificial (except for the fact that it drove technology developments that greatly increased how efficiently silicon is used – it now takes about half as much silicon to make a solar cell as it did a decade ago, and that cell produces 30-50% more power).

So in a nutshell, no, there’s a lot that has improved over the last 10 years, and labor cost ranks pretty low on the list.

As for Moore’s Law, there is in fact a similar thing in the solar industry (and all other manufacturing industries, for that matter): the learning curve. Since the dawn of the solar industry, every doubling of the cumulative rated power generation capacity of all the solar modules ever produced yields a 20% reduction in price. At the industry growth rates of the past decade, this has meant a 20% decline in price every 2.5 years, on average.


Bloomberg and most other energy industry analysts are typically talking about the levelized cost of electricity when they use the term “cheapest” in a context like this. In essence, this involves adding up all of the money you’re likely to spend on electricity over a certain period of time, then adjusting for inflation and discount rate, which is essentially a measure of whether you’d rather have $1000 today or $1100 a year from today.

On the surface it is a really simple calculation, but when you start trying to figure out what values to use in it, it gets really complicated. All power plants degrade over time, maintenance costs increase, fuel costs are unpredictable and vary geographically, I might value $1000 today more strongly than you do (i.e., you and I might disagree on the appropriate discount rate), etc. Talk to a different analyst about what Bloomberg did and you’ll get a different opinion. More and more analysts are reaching the same basic conclusion as Bloomberg – they’re hardly the first on this particular bandwagon – but the exact numbers are all over the map.

If we deploy enough solar panels, wouldn’t it be possible to effectively change the albedo of the earth and cool any nascent temperature rise?

The solar panels you can buy today are a bit more efficient than the ones you could buy ten years ago, and a lot cheaper. The efficiency can’t go up by more than a factor of 4, since it’s already at 22%. It’s unlikely to go up by more than a factor of 1.5 in the next ten years, barring some radical shift in manufacturing.

Let me know when I can buy any of the far-out technologies you link to. They are not being used by the company down the street that does solar installs - those folks are buying Chinese panels that are a few percent better than the old American ones.

The original question was about Moore’s law, which isn’t relevant to solar panels.

Thanks for clarifying all that stuff about PV price. I don’t follow it really closely. The point I was making was that there is no factor-of-twenty increase in efficiency or reduction of price to be had every decade due to the scientists in the back room improving processes every year. Energy just doesn’t work that way, because we’re already near the quantum limit for efficiency, and price depends on scaling up industrial processes and whittling away tiny bits of material cost as you said.

The thing that will impress me with solar is when they start making solar panels using nothing but solar power to do all the work from mining the raw materials to delivering them to the customer.

Well, the flexible cells are practically ubiquitous, and the 3d printed ones are being rolled out in small commercial batches already. The ones using stuff like gallium/iodine instead of silica are really rare and expensive, but they’re out there.

Still a long way to go, but stuff is trickling into the market.

It’s almost as if all those government subsidies handed out to speed up the technology’s development are doing exactly what they were supposed to! :slight_smile: