The New Dawn of Solar - Popular Science Magazine

Imagine a solar panel without the panel. Just a coating, thin as a layer of paint, that takes light and converts it to electricity. From there, you can picture roof shingles with solar cells built inside and window coatings that seem to suck power from the air. Consider solar-powered buildings stretching not just across sunny Southern California, but through China and India and Kenya as well, because even in those countries, going solar will be cheaper than burning coal. That’s the promise of thin-film solar cells: solar power that’s ubiquitous because it’s cheap. The basic technology has been around for decades, but this year, Silicon Valley–based Nanosolar created the manufacturing technology that could make that promise a reality. The company produces its PowerSheet solar cells with printing-press-style machines that set down a layer of solar-absorbing nano-ink onto metal sheets as thin as aluminum foil, so the panels can be made for about a tenth of what current panels cost and at a rate of several hundred feet per minute. Nanosolar’s first commercial cells rolled off the presses this year. Cost has always been one of solar’s biggest problems. Traditional solar cells require silicon, and silicon is an expensive commodity. That means even the cheapest solar panels cost about $3 per watt of energy they go on to produce. To compete with coal, that figure has to shrink to just $1 per watt. Nanosolar’s cells use no silicon, and the company’s manufacturing process allows it to create cells that are as efficient as most commercial cells for as little as 30 cents a watt. "It really is quite a big deal in terms of altering the way we think about solar and in inherently altering the economics of solar," says Dan Kammen, founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley.

 Published in the December issue of Popular Science

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