The article claimed that the new panels will allow a house to receive all of its electricity from the solar panels, even in winter, and that the panels will be available in South Africa within a year. They are much cheaper and much more efficient than the existing solar panels.
That’s fantastic news if everything is as claimed. With Jhb and Cape Town having suffered frequent power failures recently, and the nuke proponents in full flight once again, some progress in renewables is sorely needed.
Being a cautious type, before I set up my IT business in the Karoo, far from Eskom’s lines, I tried to find some other corraborating sources. The article (originally from the Weekend Argus) is rather over-the-top, and reads more as a press release than serious scientific reporting. It’s easy to be cynical. Scientists need to generate noise to get funding, and promising the next big thing is a surefire way of getting attention. I’ve also no idea of what happens at night time, whether sufficient energy can be stored, or alternative sources are required. Googling for the term solar breakthrough gives a good indication of the abuse of the term. Or a big oil company could come along and buy the whole thing, sticking it in a vault while they milk the dying planet of the last of its oil.
However, the leader of the team, Professor Vivian Alberts from Johannesburg University has been in the field for a long time, and seems to have built up quite a track record. In 2004 there was a lot of noise about a big breakthrough, with production estimated within three years. Since it’s now estimated at 1 year, that means everything is still on track. Reports from 2004 came from Science in Africa and the SABC, amongst others. IAfrica has a good article from October 2005 that looks at some of the economics.
Ordinary solar panels are 350 microns thick, while the new method means they can be 5 microns thick. That doesn’t mean much on its own, but in this case it means its much cheaper to product. Not only that, it’s more efficient. So, on a commercial scale, old solar panels produced 50 W at a cost of about R2100. New panels produce 60 W at a cost of R650. Quite a dramatic increase that suddenly make solar very viable. How does that compare to other sources? These next figures are gleaned from a bit of rough research, sources don’t really match up, and of course there’s lots of vested interest research in all these figures. I don’t really know the details , so don’t trust anything quoted here entirely 🙂 One source claims that this means that solar energy can be generated at a cost of 50c/kWh (SA currency used throughout).
Apparently wind energy costs 30c/KWh in the US (with a subsidy), and until now wind has always been seen as the most cost-effective renewable energy, so coming in under this is a big step forward for solar. It’s tricky to make fair comparisons, as the calculation is relatively complex, and of course affected by the capital costs of building the power stations, so I didn’t manage to find reliable figures for the others. But Earthlife publish a good, though dated, investigation of how existing nuclear power stations rely on massive subsidies to be in the slightest bit viable.
At least it looks like exciting times ahead. I’ve always believed that the correct way forward is not massive, centralised sources, but decentralisation. Each household being able to generate its own power will be a wonderful achievement.