DOE News
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    The DOE Science News Source is a Newswise initiative to promote research news from the Office of Science of the DOE to the public and news media.
    • 2011-12-08 11:00:00
    • Article ID: 583791

    Affordable Solar: It's Closer Than You Think

    • Credit: Sarah Bird

      Affordable solar power is on the horizon, says Joshua Pearce, pictured here with a high-tech photovoltaic panel.

    Marcia Goodrich, writer, [email protected], 906-487-2343

    Joshua Pearce, [email protected], 906-487-1466

    It's time to stop thinking of solar energy as a boutique source of power, says Joshua Pearce.

    Sure, solar only generates about 1 percent of the electricity in the US. But that will change in a few years, says Pearce, an associate professor of electrical engineering and materials science at Michigan Technological University. The ultimate in renewable energy is about to go mainstream.

    It's a matter of economics. A new analysis by Pearce and his colleagues at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, shows that solar photovoltaic systems are very close to achieving the tipping point: they can make electricity that's as cheap—sometimes cheaper—as what consumers pay their utilities.

    Here's why. First, the price of solar panels has plummeted. "Since 2009, the cost has dropped 70 percent," says Pearce. But more than that, the assumptions used in previous studies have not given solar an even break.

    "Historically, when comparing the economics of solar and conventional energy, people have been very conservative," says Pearce.

    To figure out the true cost of photovoltaic energy, analysts need to consider several variables, including the cost to install and maintain the system, finance charges, how long it lasts, and how much electricity it generates. Pearce and his colleagues performed an exhaustive review of the previous studies and concluded that the values given those variables were out of whack.

    For example, most analyses assume that the productivity of solar panels will drop at an annual rate of 1 percent or more, a huge overestimation, according to Pearce. "If you buy a top-of-the-line solar panel, it's much less, between 0.1 and 0.2 percent."

    In addition, "The price of solar equipment has been dropping, so you'd think that the older papers would have higher cost estimates," Pearce says. "That's not necessarily the case."

    Equipment costs are determined based on dollars per watt of electricity produced. One 2010 study estimated the cost per watt at $7.61, while a 2003 study set the amount at $4.16. The true cost in 2011, says Pearce, is under $1 per watt for solar panels purchased in bulk on the global market, though system and installation costs vary widely. In some parts of the world, solar is already economically superior, and the study predicts that it will become increasingly attractive in more and more places.

    In regions with a burgeoning solar industry, often due to favorable government policies, there are lots of solar panel installers, which heats up the market.

    "Elsewhere, installation costs have been high because contractors will do just one job a month," says Pearce. Increasing demand and competition would drop installation costs. "If you had ten installers in Upper Michigan and enough work to keep them busy, the price would drop considerably."

    Furthermore, economic studies don't generally taken into account solar energy's intangible benefits, reduced pollution and carbon emissions. And while silicon-based solar panels do rely on a nonrenewable resource--sand--they are no threat to the world's beaches. It only takes about a sandwich baggie of sand to make a roof's worth of thin-film photovoltaic cells, Pearce says.

    Based on the study, and on the fact that the cost of conventional power continues to creep upward, Pearce believes that solar energy will soon be a major player in the energy game. "It's just a matter of time before market economics catches up with it," he says.

    The study, "A Review of Solar Photovoltaic Levelized Cost of Electricity," was coauthored by Kadra Branker and Michael Pathak of Queen's University and was published in the December 2011 edition of Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, Volume 15, Issue 9, pages 4470-4482.

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    Supernovae Twins Open Up New Possibilities for Precision Cosmology

    Supernovae Twins Open Up New Possibilities for Precision Cosmology

    Cosmologists have found a way to double the accuracy of measuring distances to supernova explosions - one of their tried-and-true tools for studying the mysterious dark energy that is making the universe expand faster and faster.

    First nanoscale look at a reaction that limits the efficiency of generating clean hydrogen fuel

    First nanoscale look at a reaction that limits the efficiency of generating clean hydrogen fuel

    Transitioning to a hydrogen economy will require massive production of cheap, clean hydrogen gas for fuel and chemical feedstocks. New tools allow scientists to zoom in on a catalytic reaction that's been a bottleneck in efforts to generate hydrogen from water more efficiently.

    First Detailed Look at How Charge Transfer Distorts a Molecule's Structure

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    When light hits certain molecules, it dislodges electrons and creates areas of positive and negative charge. An X-ray free-electron laser study has directly observed how this charge transfer affects a molecule's structure for the first time.

    Suitable Spawning Habitat Awaits Salmon

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    Story tips: Stealthy air leak detection, carbon to chemicals and recycling goes large

    Story tips: Stealthy air leak detection, carbon to chemicals and recycling goes large

    ORNL story tips: Stealthy air leak detection, carbon to chemicals and recycling goes large

    Blueprint for a robust quantum future

    Blueprint for a robust quantum future

    Researchers at Argonne National Laboratory, the University of Chicago and scientific organizations in Japan, Korea and Hungary have established an invaluable resource for those looking to discover new quantum systems.

    Science Snapshots From Berkeley Lab

    Science Snapshots From Berkeley Lab

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    Mapping the Electronic States in an Exotic Superconductor

    Mapping the Electronic States in an Exotic Superconductor

    Scientists mapped the electronic states in an exotic superconductor. The maps point to the composition range necessary for topological superconductivity, a state that could enable more robust quantum computing.

    New computer model helps brings the sun into the laboratory

    New computer model helps brings the sun into the laboratory

    Every day, the sun ejects large amounts of a hot particle soup known as plasma toward Earth where it can disrupt telecommunications satellites and damage electrical grids. Now, scientists have made a discovery that could lead to better predictions of this space weather.

    Watching the Evolution of Nanostructures in Thin Films

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    Department of Energy Announces $10 Million for Research on Quantum Information Science and Nuclear Physics

    Today, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced $10 million for interdisciplinary research in Quantum Information Science (QIS) and nuclear physics.

    ORNL's Sergei Kalinin elected Fellow of the Microscopy Society of America

    ORNL's Sergei Kalinin elected Fellow of the Microscopy Society of America

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    DOE Awards $17.3 Million for Student and Faculty Research Opportunities and to Foster Workforce Diversity

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    DOE's Office of Science Graduate Student Research (SCGSR) Program selects 78 outstanding U.S. graduate students

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    Department of Energy Announces $11 Million for Research on Quantum Information Science for Fusion Energy Sciences

    Today, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced $11 million for ten projects in Quantum Information Science (QIS) with relevance to fusion and plasma science.

    Katrin Heitmann elected spokesperson for LSST Dark Energy Science Collaboration

    Katrin Heitmann elected spokesperson for LSST Dark Energy Science Collaboration

    Argonne's Katrin Heitmann has been elected the scientific spokesperson for the LSST Dark Energy Science Collaboration. This collaboration will address fundamental questions about the evolution of the universe with data from the Rubin Observatory.

    Department of Energy to Provide $2 Million for Traineeship in Isotope R&D and Production

    Today, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced up to $2 million to establish a traineeship program to advance workforce development in the field of isotope production, processing, and associated research, with preference to minority serving institutions.

    Department of Energy to Provide $10 Million for Research on Data Reduction for Science

    Today, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced $10 million for foundational research to address the challenges of managing and processing the increasingly massive data sets produced by today's scientific instruments, facilities, and supercomputers in order to facilitate more efficient analysis.

    ORNL's Honeycutt, Horvath Named SME 2021 Outstanding Young Manufacturing Engineers

    ORNL's Honeycutt, Horvath Named SME 2021 Outstanding Young Manufacturing Engineers

    Andrew Honeycutt and Nick Horvath, machine tool researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, have been selected to receive the 2021 Geoffrey Boothroyd Outstanding Young Manufacturing Engineer Award from SME, the professional manufacturing engineering association.

    Department of Energy to Provide $25 Million toward Development of a Quantum Internet

    Today the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced a plan to provide $25 million for basic research toward the development of a quantum internet.


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    Harvesting Energy from Light using Bio-inspired Artificial Cells

    Harvesting Energy from Light using Bio-inspired Artificial Cells

    Scientists designed and connected two different artificial cells to each other to produce molecules called ATP (adenosine triphosphate).

    Engineering Living Scaffolds for Building Materials

    Engineering Living Scaffolds for Building Materials

    Bone and mollusk shells are composite systems that combine living cells and inorganic components. This allows them to regenerate and change structure while also being very strong and durable. Borrowing from this amazing complexity, researchers have been exploring a new class of materials called engineered living materials (ELMs).

    Excavating Quantum Information Buried in Noise

    Excavating Quantum Information Buried in Noise

    Researchers developed two new methods to assess and remove error in how scientists measure quantum systems. By reducing quantum "noise" - uncertainty inherent to quantum processes - these new methods improve accuracy and precision.

    How Electrons Move in a Catastrophe

    How Electrons Move in a Catastrophe

    Lanthanum strontium manganite (LSMO) is a widely applicable material, from magnetic tunnel junctions to solid oxide fuel cells. However, when it gets thin, its behavior changes for the worse. The reason why was not known. Now, using two theoretical methods, a team determined what happens.

    When Ions and Molecules Cluster

    When Ions and Molecules Cluster

    How an ion behaves when isolated within an analytical instrument can differ from how it behaves in the environment. Now, Xue-Bin Wang at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory devised a way to bring ions and molecules together in clusters to better discover their properties and predict their behavior.

    Tune in to Tetrahedral Superstructures

    Tune in to Tetrahedral Superstructures

    Shape affects how the particles fit together and, in turn, the resulting material. For the first time, a team observed the self-assembly of nanoparticles with tetrahedral shapes.

    Tracing Interstellar Dust Back to the Solar System's Formation

    Tracing Interstellar Dust Back to the Solar System's Formation

    This study is the first to confirm dust particles pre-dating the formation of our solar system. Further study of these materials will enable a deeper understanding of the processes that formed and have since altered them.

    Investigating Materials that Can Go the Distance in Fusion Reactors

    Investigating Materials that Can Go the Distance in Fusion Reactors

    Future fusion reactors will require materials that can withstand extreme operating conditions, including being bombarded by high-energy neutrons at high temperatures. Scientists recently irradiated titanium diboride (TiB2) in the High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR) to better understand the effects of fusion neutrons on performance.

    Better 3-D Imaging of Tumors in the Breast with Less Radiation

    Better 3-D Imaging of Tumors in the Breast with Less Radiation

    In breast cancer screening, an imaging technique based on nuclear medicine is currently being used as a successful secondary screening tool alongside mammography to improve the accuracy of the diagnosis. Now, a team is hoping to improve this imaging technique.

    Microbes are Metabolic Specialists

    Microbes are Metabolic Specialists

    Scientists can use genetic information to measure if microbes in the environment can perform specific ecological roles. Researchers recently analyzed the genomes of over 6,000 microbial species.


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