October 29, 2009 | 19
Editor’s Note: Scientific American‘s George Musser will be chronicling his experiences installing solar panels in Solar at Home (formerly 60-Second Solar). Read his introduction here and see all posts here.
I may be one of the few people in my town to have solar power right now, but if the news I’m hearing from the Solar Power International trade show this week is right, a wave of installations is about to sweep the country. I wasn’t able to attend the show — this blog is just a sideline for me and I couldn’t justify a whole trip — but I had a chance to talk with two conference attendees, Mike Caliel, CEO of IES, a big national energy contractor that has gotten heavily involved in renewables, and Harry Fleming, CEO of Acro Energy Technologies, one of the biggest solar installers in California.
Both of them called the show “overwhelming” on account of the huge number of new companies — especially new panel manufacturers, and especially Chinese ones. “These new guys are dragging down the prices for everyone,” Fleming said. A year ago, panels cost $4 a watt, now it’s $2 a watt for brand-name panels and as little as $1.50 a watt for lesser-known manufacturers. With so much new capacity, he said he expects prices to continue to fall.
Meanwhile, the auxiliary equipment and installation have also come down in price, from $4 a watt to $3.50 a watt. Caliel described many of the improvements as low-tech. For instance, simpler mounting systems have reduced labor costs and defect rates. Fleming also spoke of consolidation of installers and therefore greater economies of scale.
Between these two trends, a solar array costs as little as half of what it did a few years ago. It’s still more than the average homeowner is able to fork over, so government subsidies are still needed to nurture the growing industry. But the downward trend lends support to the argument that solar will be competitive with fossil power within a decade, at which point the subsidies can be phased out. The out-of-pocket expense for homeowners is getting low enough that people can sometimes swing the cost without refinancing their houses, and leasing arrangements are becoming more common, too. Whereas the industry’s growth is now limited by demand, Fleming said, it may soon be limited by supply: companies may not be able to keep up with all the people knocking on their doors ready to buy.
“It’s like watching the Internet mature in 1995,” Fleming said. “There will be widespread adoption.”
Of course, he would say that, wouldn’t he. There are still a lot of kinks that need to be worked out. Caliel said that some companies have struggled to hire enough trained people and maintain quality. “There’s been a rush,” he said. My own experience bears this out, although I must admit that my dissatisfaction has lessened somewhat. My system is working as advertised and my installer visited in person last night to apologize for the troubles I’ve had. He described some of the steps the company, 1st Light Energy, has taken to ensure they don’t happen again. I’ll continue to post here what my experiences are. I’m an optimist by nature, but solar may soon get to the point where it appeals even to cynics.