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issue: August 2008 APPLIANCE Magazine

Appliance Line
Going Grid-Free

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Tim Somheil, Editor

How long until “alternative” home power becomes truly cost-justifiable?

Tim Somheil, Editor

Residential solar energy devices are slowly coming down in price. But fuel costs are rising fast. When these cost changes intersect, home energy-generation appliances will finally be mass-marketable.

But When?

Harnessing the power of the sun has always seemed like a remarkably tidy answer to the complex problems of energy. How ideal to use the natural, free, clean light of the sun to power our lives instead of dangerous, dirty fossil fuels or nuclear energy.

After decades of R&D and commercialization at all levels, from big power utilities to home systems, the costs of solar have been pushed down and efficiencies have been dramatically improved. But the price is still too high.

Renewed consumer interest in alternative power is rising as fast as fuel prices. The idea of being energy independent—not your
nation but your house—is extremely compelling. What makes it even better is that utility companies in many locales are required to buy back your home’s electricity surpluses.

Pricing out a system, I quickly realized that I won’t be getting checks from my electric company any time soon. Sharp’s Web site cost calculator tells me the payback time on a solar system large enough to provide 100% of my home energy use would be more than 25 years. A system providing just a portion of my home power would still be out of reach financially.

Today, the average homeowner simply can’t afford solar technology. It will take a technological breakthrough—or a series of significant efficiency improvements—to make the price palatable to the masses. Photovoltaic (PV) cell optimization research and manufacturing efficiency efforts have been continuous. The OEMs know a retail price-point breakthrough could open up a market worth billions.

Solar Growth

Even now the PV market is a growing one. DuPont foresees 30% PV growth annually in the next several years. The company supplies
several key materials used in PV panels.

“The most important factor for continued rapid market growth is achieving continuous year-over-year cost reductions in installed photovoltaic system cost,” said David B. Miller, group vice president of DuPont Electronic & Communication Technologies.

Market researchers are keeping a sharp eye on the market. Research firm SBI says solar power revenues in the United States exceeded $3.8 billion in 2007. It looks for revenues to triple by 2012.

Several obstacles are keeping solar from going mainstream, most of them having to do with system costs, SBI says, and government backing was lacking. “However, recent incentives from Capitol Hill provide users of solar energy with tax credits and rebates on solar systems,” said SBI publisher Tatjana Meerman. SBI also credits the Solar America Initiative with helping to accelerate solar cell R&D.

The Solar America program seems a sparse contribution, with the Solar America Cities program providing $2.5 million to 13 cities over two years. Can $96,000 a year help any city program do more than maintain its own bureaucracy? More important may be U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) funding for PV Module Incubator projects. This funding could reach as much as $57 million—which still seems slight.

Solar Innovations

Investing in R&D can pay off in the form of innovations that may bring the price of solar way down. Just two months ago, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology group led by Professor Marc A. Baldo announced a significant solar technology development. The group’s solar concentrator serves as a window in the home, with the solar cells placed around the edges of a flat glass panel. The light hitting the window is focused into the cells and increases the electrical power obtained from each solar cell “by a factor of over 40,” Baldo said.

A key point: the system is simple to manufacture, helping to keep end-product costs lower, and the development team believes the technology could be implemented in as little as three years. The technology could even be added to existing solar-panel systems to increase efficiency by 50% for minimal additional cost.

A Stand-Alone Solar Appliance

OEMs are also looking for new ways to get solar into the hands of consumers. In July the CEO of SunPower discussed a new venture with Toshiba, with SunPower supplying the solar cells. A Nikkei report described the Toshiba home system as small and lightweight, with an inverter to convert dc power from the PV cells to ac current with 33% more efficiency.

This solar power home appliance will go on sale first in Japan, but no launch date was announced.

Going grid-free is still a long way off, but it looks like we’ll eventually have affordable residential systems that allow us greater energy independence—at home.


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