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A Material That Could Make Solar Power “Dirt Cheap”

Researchers discover that a material known for a hundred years could lower the cost of solar power.

By Kevin Bullis on August 8, 2013

Why It Matters

Solar power is much more expensive than fossil fuels, especially when you factor in its intermittency.

A new type of solar cell, made from a material that is dramatically cheaper to obtain and use than silicon, could generate as much power as today’s commodity solar cells.

Although the potential of the material is just starting to be understood, it has caught the attention of the world’s leading solar researchers, and several companies are already working to commercialize it.

Researchers developing the technology say that it could lead to solar panels that cost just 10 to 20 cents per watt. Solar panels now typically cost about 75 cents a watt, and the U.S. Department of Energy says 50 cents per watt will allow solar power to compete with fossil fuel.

In the past, solar researchers have been divided into two camps in their pursuit of cheaper solar power. Some have sought solar cells that can be made very cheaply but that have the downside of being relatively inefficient. Lately, more researchers have focused on developing very high efficiency cells, even if they require more expensive manufacturing techniques.

The new material may make it possible to get the best of both worlds—solar cells that are highly efficient but also cheap to make.

One of the world’s top solar researchers, Martin Green of the University of New South Wales, Australia, says the rapid progress has been surprising. Solar cells that use the material “can be made with very simple and potentially very cheap technology, and the efficiency is rising very dramatically,” he says.
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