The Department of Energy earlier this year unveiled a program, called SunShot, geared to bring the price of solar down to $1 a watt by 2017 and to 73 cents by 2030.
But is it possible? Crystalline silicon modules now sell for $1.48 per watt, with the cost of fully installed solar systems topping $3 to $4. per watt.
Modules will have to drop to 50 cents to hit the $1-per-watt goal. The installation and balance-of-system costs will have to plunge from around $1.70 to 40 cents. Inverter costs will need to drop to ten cents per watt.
The industry has a long record of driving down costs. Modules alone cost $21.83 back in 1980 in current dollars. Compare that to other forms of energy. Oil cost $28 a barrel back in 1982. Now it’s over $100. Cement, steel, construction and soft costs like legal and planning have caused the costs of coal, gas and nuclear to fluctuate. So score one for the Moore’s Law-like power of solar.
Solar, however, will never be a free lunch. Although some have proposed harvesting solar from dyes or paints, the vast majority of solar modules over the next two decades will be produced from refined and raw materials: ingots of nearly pure silicon, plastic protective membranes, silver or copper interconnects, glass and aluminum structures.
Some cost cutting could be easy. Integrating solar modules into prefabricated racks at the factory for "power plants in a box" can shave onsite labor and shipping costs.
Concentrators -- mirrors and/or lenses that artificially increase the amount of sunlight that strikes a solar cell -- seem to be gaining favor finally, too. Some companies, such as ZenithSolar, have come up with high-powered concentrators that permit a single cell to generate up to 2 kilowatts of electricity.
One of the most important developments is thinner wafers.
So what’s the ugly reality? Thin wafers require completely new handling mechanisms. One of solar's rising costs involves paperwork.
Is $1 a watt possible, or will our best intentions get in the way?
Read more on this topic in a joint effort by General Electric Ecomagination and Greentech Media, and join the conversation here.