New Materials Promise to Dramatically Drop Photovoltaic Prices

new materials like those in the "solar shingle" will dramatically reduce renewable energy costsWhat si the single most significant barrier to widespread use of alternative energy?  Is it the right wing climate change skeptics?  No.  It’s economics.  If there is not money to be made at the same scale as in the fossil fuel industry, and if renewable, clean energy does not become cheaper than fossil fuels, alternative energy doesn’t stand a chance in the free market.

As technology moves often faster than society, politics, culture, etc., the economics of alternative energy look brighter and brighter.

It is estimated the rooftops of American see enough sunlight to meet between 50 percent and 100 percent of America’s energy needs.  It is unclear if this statement makes assumptions of 100 percent energy conversion efficiency.  However, the main barrier remains the economics of widespread photovoltaic use.  Although integrated solar rooftop materials are a reality in the construction market, costs remain prohibitive.  Until now.

High photovoltaic costs have remained high because of a) cost of manufacturing and b) costs of raw materials.  Historically photovoltaic production has required the use of rare earth metals.  However scientists have just broken the global record for solar energy conversion with “earth-abundant” materials.

The technological advance was just highlighted at the 244th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society.  The technology swaps metals like indium and gallium for copper and zinc.  Not only are rare earth metals, well, rare.  They come from mostly foreign nations, with China mining 90 percent of the earth’s rare metals.

Solar Shingle from Dow ChemicalThe new shingles are installed in the same way as other shingles, making the installation cost similar if not competitive to conventional roofing materials.  The material cost is still higher.  The closest version of the solar shingle that uses rare metals is the DOW POWERHOUSE solar shingle.

The other major manufacturer of solar shingles besides DOW, (in case you have an ethical objection to their other work), is CertainTeed.  Their Apollo Solar Shingle integrates well with existing shingle products.  This may be the better option for northern climates because they can hold 250 lb. per square foot – perfect for those snowy days.  However, these solar shingles use rare metals, increasing the price of production and the dependence on foreign nations.

I personally like the design of the new shingles, replicating the curved Spanish tile shingle.  This would look ridiculous in Vermont where I live.  But if I ever own a southern California beach house, these will be my first choice.

Dusty is a social scientist and consultant in Vermont.

Featured image credit: westbywest, courtesy flickr

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