Article by Kapil Ochani
Solar calculators, solar panels, solar generators and solar lights are well and good, but what about the solar cell cost, the basic unit which constitutes all solar products? In a day and age when fossil fuels are fast depleting, skyrocketing prices, not to mention the resulting environment fallout, countries are quickly turning to renewable energy. And one of the more popular sources of renewable energy is solar power.
Moreover, the price constitutes over 60% of the total cost of installing a solar device. This immediately necessitates a discussion on costs. And for solar energy to be lucrative in any manner and form there has to be some kind of conceivable profit. This is the reason why it’s good news that prices are falling and bound to fall further.
PRICE IN TERMS OF TECHNOLOGY
A photovoltaic (PV) cell, is basically a device which converts energy from the sunlight in the form of photons into electricity. Since the first functional solar cell was created in 1954, the years since then have provided ample opportunity for much research and technological advancement, leading to better quality and thus a decrease in cost.
Yet solar power technology and manufacturing is expensive, simply because the cost of silicon far outweighs any other cost. Therefore no matter the price fall, they are still high and therefore costs are a vital part of the equation.
Solar cell modules are primarily made from silicon, the best semi-conductor available presently. The silicon shortage in 2008 allowed greater inroads to be made in non-silicon technology. In addition, silicon has a relatively higher manufacturing cost. But for large-scale application and heavy-duty machinery, silicon remains the most effective choice due to its higher efficiencies.
Conversely for smaller products, there is a greater chance of solar cell price reduction. R&D using cheaper alternatives such as amorphous silicon and polycrystalline silicon, advances in production technology and electricity generation performances (for example faster deposition rates) are all helping reduce prices. Costs further decrease through use of silicon ribbon growth process instead of conventional ingot technology. DIY solar kits also allow customers to put together cheaper solar panels, balancing cell cost and efficiency.
The current drive in the solar market is for efficiency per watt, to lower cost. Complex manufacturing processes used in first and second generation solar cells result in greater costs. However, techniques such as concentrated photovoltaics (requires using optical elements to converge sunlight on a particular area) ultimately bring down total solar cell cost.
Third generation cells further diminish price, since they use a lower temperature process, yet they are currently not as efficient. But research continues.
Solar cells costs are also being reduced through use of cheaper raw materials (thus the use of polymers) to produce lightweight and flexible products. Current solar modules have led to a cost decrease as quality, proficiency and precision of the technology increases.
ACTUAL SOLAR CELLS PRICES
Coming to actual solar cell cost, solar cells can be found in the .30 – .00 range, depending on type, make and brand. Currently, the price in USA is .51 per watt, as opposed to .83 three years ago, for a 125 Watt and higher module. The costs are higher in Europe.
Solar cells prices vary in different countries. Germany, Spain, Japan, the US, Italy are among the top countries producing solar power. Japan and Germany, due in part to large government subsidies, are the top contenders for price competitiveness. Over the past year, there have been more companies that have lowered prices for a solar module, meaning lowered solar cells costs.
SOLAR CELL PRICE TREND
Ultimately, are solar cells cost effective? General opinion varies; eventually technology leads the way. The more technology progresses, the greater cost effectiveness. For example, direct bright sunlight is no longer necessary for many modern solar cells. Earlier this year, a breakthrough was made in thin-film technology, which if used in mass-scale production, could considerably not only lower solar cell price but also reduce material waste.
While initially expensive to set up, a cell lasts for 20-30 years, with an output that should not fall below 80%. Add in oil costs, depleting resources, and the way is paved for greater demand and in turn greater large-scale production of solar energy equipment, leading to low prices.
Moreover, there is a significant part of the world that receives considerable sunlight, India being one of them. What’s more, far-off regions not linked to the power grid in developing nations would – and do – benefit greatly from solar power. Also, costs can be compared to the price of electricity. Countries where the latter is high, like in Japan and Italy, are much better off using technology in residential areas, even if cost recovery is not immediate.
Consequently, many areas can be looked into, apart from actual solar research, which would in the long-term help reduce price. And though solar cell technology has been present for a long time now, it is only currently that solar power has become economically feasible and a market-friendly product. That price is going down is accepted, and solar prices will continue this downward trend with increasing competitiveness and greater market contenders. For example, increased usage in European countries has led countries like China and Taiwan to jump in – and China, which produces 9 GW cells every year at present, is well known for lowering costs. So it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume costs are going to be coming down in the future.
Cells are a vital part of a solar module. Solar cell manufacturers are going to be looking at decreasing prices, to make them more attractive to consumers. Solar cost is going to continue on its way down, and there are no two ways about it.
Kapil has been a consultant in Solar Panels India domain and has been working on his own website to develop new ideas using solar panels in India.
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