Clean Power U Michigan and Global Photonic develop low cost solar cell

Published on December 8th, 2012 | by Tina Casey


Grid Parity In Sight For New Low-Cost Solar Cell

December 8th, 2012 by  

That light barreling down upon us from the end of the tunnel is solar power as cheap as fossil fuels. The latest breakthrough is a low-cost solar cell manufactured with the help of Gallium Arsenide, a compound of the “poor metal” gallium and arsenic.

It definitely does not sound like something you’d want to eat, but a recent laboratory demonstration shows that the resulting solar cells have the potential to produce electricity at a cost as low as 45 cents per watt, far below the grid standard of $1 per watt.

U Michigan and Global Photonic develop low cost solar cell

Another Road to Cheap Solar Power

The breakthrough comes courtesy of New Jersey–based Global Photonic Energy Corporation (GPEC) and its research partner, Dr. Stephen R. Forrest, Vice President for Research at the University of Michigan.

The new thin-film solar cell is based on organic photovoltaic (OPV) technology that uses carbon (conventional solar cells use silicon).

Engineering a more efficient solar cell is one key to cutting costs, but commercial-scale manufacturing plays another critical role in the overall cost of solar power. Greater efficiency does not necessarily march in lockstep with lower manufacturing costs, so the trick is to find a balance between the two.

That’s where the partners concentrated their research. The result is a new low-cost manufacturing process that involves using one Gallium Arsenide wafer to produce many solar cells.

Gallium Arsenide is used in conventional solar cell manufacturing, but until that process involves using the same wafer only once or twice, which puts a significant drag on manufacturing costs.

We Built This!

Solar cell efficiency is still a key part of the equation, and this is where GPEC’s decades-long research into “small-molecule” systems has come into play.

However, translating that efficiency into marketable products involves a different skill set, and that’s where the University of Michigan came in. Last year, Dr. Forrest won a grant of $1.5 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to incorporate GPEC’s propriety molecules into a “stacked architecture” that combines high efficiency and high reliability with low-cost manufacturing.

The grant was awarded through President Obama’s SunShot Initiative, which launched last year with the mission of bringing the cost of solar power down to fossil fuel parity within a few years.

Part of SunShot involves support for new, high-efficiency solar cells, including organic solar cells.

SunShot also places a heavy emphasis on reducing the “soft costs” of solar power (installation, permits, grid connections, etc), which DOE estimates can account for about half the overall cost of a solar array.

Location, Location, Location

Speaking of soft costs, when you talk about the installed cost of solar power, it’s also important to account for how it will be used. In the case of GPEC, the new flexible sheets seem to be aimed initially at the market for mobile and off-grid locations, including military equipment and satellites, where installation issues and other soft costs are quite different from those involved in the solar power market for buildings and other permanent structures.

However, the company also has a broader market in mind. Aside from layering the new solar cells onto plastic sheets, GPEC is looking at building-integrated applications such as spray-on solar “paint” and transparent solar windows. The company also envisions using the new technology for solar vehicle paint, solar covers for recharging portable electronics, and solar fabric.

Image (cropped): Coins by MoneyBlogNewz

Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey

Check out our new 93-page EV report, based on over 2,000 surveys collected from EV drivers in 49 of 50 US states, 26 European countries, and 9 Canadian provinces.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • Chuck

    This is an interesting, although old, discussion. What is interesting is that today residential Germans are paying three times US cost for electricity. Solar is causing giant grid problems. Their bold foray into solar and so-called renewable has actually increased their carbon output, and they have adopted a non-sensical policy of closing their nuclear plants, based on fear of an event which hasn’t happened there, and is unlikely to happen, given the different geology. Solar cells are still expensive and have a twenty year life span. It is easy to calculate that they cannot possibly satisfy human demand for electricity simply because of the areas needed and the intermittency. To satisfy current demand would require 6% of the Earth’s land area. They must be replaced every twenty years at great expense. They remain a special application for special circumstances, hyped at enormous public expense as a solution for humanity. They are not renewable: they depend on rare earth elements in finite supply. Best look to nuclear fission and recycling through breeder reactors, and mining of the near limitless supply of radioactive elements in the ocean. Population control might help.

    • Bob_Wallace

      No Chuck, you’re bringing the wrong.

      Germans pay about the same for their electricity as people in New York State pay. But when they purchase electricity they also pay some non-utility taxes as the same time. Money that goes into the general fund. Germans also pay renewable subsidies with their utility bill.

      In the US we pay our taxes via income tax.

      Let’s look at how costs break out for retail customers in Germany…

      In 2013 the average household electricity rate is about 29 € cents / kWh according to the BDEW (Energy industry association).

      The composition:

      8.0 cent – Power Generation & Sales

      6.5 cent – Grid Service Surcharge

      5.3 cent – Renewable Energy Surcharge

      0.7 cent – Other Surcharges (CHP-Promotion, Offshore liability,…)

      In addition there are some taxes & fees that go straight into the governments budget:

      2.1 cent – EcoTax (federal government)

      1.8 cent – Concession fees (local governments)

      4.6 cent – Value added tax (19% on all of the above) – (federal, state & local governments)

      So 8 + 6.5 or 14.5 euro cents go to electricity purchase and delivery. About 20 US cents. That’s higher than the US 12.5 cent average, but less than a penny higher than New York state.

      That’s Wrong #1.

      Germany is having no grid problems due to electricity. Germany has the best grid reliability in Europe and as they have added renewables their reliability has improved.

      Wrong #2.

      Germany had a small increase in CO2 output last winter because it was a cold winter and because the price of natural gas increased. The CO2 increase had nothing to do with renewables.

      Wrong #3.

      Let us melt down a nuclear reactor in the US and you will see us closing our down PDQ.

      Wrong #4.

      Solar panels have fallen from around $100/watt to now under $1/watt over the last 30 years. Solar is quite affordable, cheaper than new coal or wind. Cheaper than gas peakers.

      Solar panels last at least 40 years. We don’t know how much longer and won’t until more years pass and our 40 year old panels tell us how long.
      Wrong #5 (With a bonus wrong-point.)

      We could power the world while using less than 1% of the Earth’s surface were we to use nothing but solar, which we won’t.

      Wrong #6.

      Solar panels are not dependent on rare earth elements.

      Wrong #7.

      Nuclear is too expensive and takes to long to install to be useful in getting us off fossil fuels.

      Wrong #8.

      Yes, we do need to reduce population levels.

      You managed to get one thing write in a whole massive paragraph of fail.

  • Pingback: Improved solar cell efficiency for OPVs if residue problem is solved()

  • globi

    You are confusing costs of power plant with costs of electricity.

    Wholesale electricity price may be around 10 cents/kWh.
    Calculation example: If a PV system would cost $1.50 per watt $1500 /kWp and can benefit from 1600 kWh /kWp (per year) then electricity would cost around 5 cents/kWh within a 20 year amortization time (not accounting for maintenance and interests).

    • tsvieps

      Wholesale prices of power are much less than 10c/KWH for say gas fired plants. Maybe 3 cents. Not accounting for maintenance and interest costs ignores economics and 20 year payback simply does not work for systems whose lifetimes are in the 20 year range. And all the calculations presented ignore the biggest cost, which is storage…needed for Solar and Wind, but not for carbon based, hydro, nor nuclear, nor geo-thermal power sources. Solar still seems decades from “grid parity”.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Might seem that way to you, but it isn’t.

        Solar has already reached grid parity in some parts of the world, Hawaii for example.

        And there are various types of grid parity. Retail customers pay a lot more than wholesale prices for their power and with TOD (time of day) billing the sunny hours can mean some fairly expensive electricity. All solar has to do is to match (or just come close) to that highest number.
        BTW, electricity from gas plants is around 6 cents per kWh according to the DOE/EIA.

        Solarin Germany is being installed for less than $2/watt at the utility level. Bring that price to the US and solar will produce electricity for about the same as natural gas. We’re now around $2.60/watt.

        • tsvieps

          Where power is generated certainly does makes a big difference. And retail prices are certainly higher than wholesale. But we are not near $2.6/watt on the retail level, as far as I know, so TOD pricing needs to be evaluated at higher costs. The last I looked for myself–about 15 months ago–it was @ $6.5/W for a 2KW installed system. I believe So Cal Edison is paying about $0.30/KWH feed-in tariff for the 750 MW “thermo-solar” system being built now by BrightSource.

          Also I think it is important when evaluating economics of power generation not to let oneself be misled by govt edicts. If I put in a personal “renewable” generation system in here in Oregon, my utility is forced to buy whatever excess I generate at full retail prices, no matter whether they even need it. That helps my personal economic evaluation of the benefit of say a PV solar system, but that does not reflect its value to the utility. And the later value is more reflective of its present economic value to society…separate from any external value system such as the possible future costs related to CO2 that may or may not derive from burning natural gas. CO2 driven warming is a different subject than whether one has reached “grid” parity with an alternate power generation system.

          For off-grid systems, solar could certainly be competitive now compared to say a diesel driven generator. The other place solar may be economically near “parity” now is where solar systems supply during peak power usage…AND…a utility can forgo building a “peak only” gas or coal fired plant because of the solar generation. Given the capital tie-up, a gas plant that only runs a few hours a day during part of the year may indeed cost about $0.30/KWH. But I do think a gas plant running 24/7 now can sell significantly below 6 cents/KWH profitably at the wholesale level. Remember the price of natural gas has come down from $12/MBTU to below $4 in the last few years. Perhaps your DOE number is a few years lagging.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Average US residential installed solar is $5.46/watt. $2.60 is for utility scale systems.

            We are in the early days of a transition from fossil fuels to renewables. There are all sorts of techniques being used to help the transition along, including subsides and required buybacks from customers. These strange things will phase out along the way.

            Our residential costs are much too high. Over twice as high as Germany. Since we use the same components and our labor costs are similar we can expect our costs to drop. Germany was more aggressive about supporting solar (that subsidy stuff) and it got them much further along than we are.
            $5.46 (with no subsidies) yields about 25 cent per kWh electricity. That, I believe, is grid parity in Hawaii. It’s also cheaper than what some SoCal customers are paying at top tier pricing.

            If one is making a personal decision then subsidies need to be included.
            Power from peaking plants can run much higher than 30 cents per. And if the utility is using merit order pricing all suppliers, regardless of their production cost, get the higher rate. Customer-provided solar can keep those peakers from ever coming into play and hold down the cost of electricity far beyond what goes to the peakers.

            Customer owned solar can knock the hell out of electricity prices. Give this piece a read.
            You can check current LCOE here –

          • tsvieps

            These are useful clarifications. Thanks. $5.50/w for residential, down from $6.50 over 1 year ago does not seem out of line.

            But a $2KW PV system would still cost $11k. Here in Portland OR on my south facing roof that would generate about 1700 KWH per year…worth only about $170 at homeowner retail pricing. This seems to provide a payback of 65 years…except that about every 10 years one likely needs to replace the inverters and other power electronics which allow interface to the grid and home…cost maybe $3k. And that leaves off simple maintenance costs like sweeping leaves and dirt off the panels.

            Once again, if solar power is produced when power is needed then calculations of cost/KWH from cost per KW-Pk can be straightforward. But in general power is needed on demand and interruptible power without storage cannot be directly compared to modalities that can generate 24/7. Solar possibly is competitive in Hawaii because the cost of power is extremely high there…but you do not see large industrial complexes rushing to build factories there.

            Here in OR there are large wind farms because of govt subsidies and edicts, but these have not been successfully integrated by the utility companies. Much of this wind power is simply refused by the Bonneville Power Administration for long periods when hydro-power must be generated to protect fish in the rivers…and about 50% of our power is still from coal in spite of large hydro-power resources.

            I volunteer to pay 10% extra for our house power so it is “100% wind power”. But of course what we receive is not this. I may be encouraging future wind cost reductions by paying this extra amount for green power. However I have no illusions that wind is really only 10% away from “parity”. There are large subsidies to the wind farms that are separate and storage is not part of the generation. Combining with hydro, would seem to provide an opportunity to use large lakes as a kind of storage for wind power…but as noted above that does not work out for much of the time…that said, wind is certainly much closer to parity than solar…and not only for OR.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Yeah, you don’t live where solar will reach grid parity soon. Better than Seattle, but much worse than some other places.

            If you installed at the average $5.50/watt, financed for 20 years at 4% you’d lock in at $0.246/kWh.

            If you took the 30% federal subsidy and installed at $3.85/watt you’d lock in at $0.173/kWh.

            Feds say that Sep 2012 average retail electricity was $0.104/kWh. Assume 3% annual inflation and over 20 years the average cost of grid electricity would be $0.139/kW. Solar needs to come down to about $3/watt after subsidies to work for you.

            Of course if you could get installation for what German homeowners are paying you’d be well ahead with solar. I expect we’ll see those kinds of prices here soon.

            “But in general power is needed on demand and interruptible power without storage cannot be directly compared to modalities that can generate 24/7. ”
            The issue is getting power to people when they want it. Those 24/7 generators have their own set of problems. Some of them (nuclear in particular) can’t turn off if no one wants their power so they either need storage or are forced to sell at a loss when less expensive generation such as wind is providing.

            Selling at a loss for part of the day means that you have to charge more for the rest of the day in order to catch up.

            We’ve got one nuclear reactor shutting down this month because it can no longer pay for its own upkeep, in spite of being paid off. About a quarter of our existing reactors are facing this problem, routine maintenance and fueling are roughly as expensive as the average wholesale cost of electricity. If they happen to incur a large repair bill (Chrystal River and San Onofre) they may never come back on line.

            We’re moving into an era in which wind and (soon) solar will be the cheap providers. We’ll get more and more of our new power from them and use natural gas for fill-in. And later likely replace NG with storage. Wind + solar + NG/storage pencil cheaper than new coal or nuclear and cheaper than using NG 24/365.

            You can check the LCOE of wind here –

            You’ll notice that wind is quite competitive with other generation technologies.

            And remember that the hydro and nuclear is coming from facilities built long ago and paid off. Think what those wind prices will look like for paid off wind farms.

            Just checked. Oregon seems to have a generous subsidy program. Looks like solar might cost out right now.

            ” Encompassing PV, Passive solar heat, solar water heating and solar thermal space heating, this tax credit is a go-getter–mainly due to the high cap for PV systems. Incentive rates for photovoltaic systems are $3.00 per watt up to $6,000 or 50% of the total system cost. The lesser of the two will determine the amount of incentive. However, tax credits may not exceed $1,500 in a single year or the homeowner’s tax liability for that year, so the credit is typically doled out over four years (credits may be carried over for five years max).”

      • globi

        It’s doubtful that even a large electricity consumer such as Walmart is getting electricity at 3 cents/kWh.

        But that wasn’t the point anyway. The point was that one shouldn’t confuse costs of a power plant ($/W) with costs of electricity produced (cents/kWh).

        And PV-systems last obviously longer much longer than 20 years given the fact that the PV-module manufacturers warrant 80% power after a lifetime of 25 years:

        This PV-system in Switzerland was installed in 1993 and had it’s maximum production in 2005 and is still going strong:

        And here’s an offer for a 154 kWp PV-System which would easily fit on a Walmart roof for $1.50 /W (complete PV-System including installation).
        If the Germans can do it, Americans should be able to do it too.

      • globi

        Also, PV reduces the burden on the grid, reduces the peak load and reduces storage needed.

        Due to German rooftop electricity the Swiss hydro power plant operators and the Dutch can sell less peak electricity at noon (and the Swiss pump storage operators have in fact less to pump at night = less power to store).

  • Hans

    The author confuses module costs with system cost. The 1$/W holy grail is for system cost. At the moment module costs are less than half of the system cost. So reducing the cost of BOS- components is at least as important. Furthermore, in the US there is low hanging fruit in the soft costs, such as installation and permitting, which are a multitude of that in Europe.

  • Bob_Wallace

    Current spot prices for silicon solar modules range from $0.54 to $1/watt. The average price is $0.66/kWh.

    Current spot prices for thin-film solar modules range from $0.52 to $0.95/watt. The average price is $0.62/kWh.

    Prices continue to drop. By the time this version gets to market $0.45/watt may not be very impressive. Seven cents is not a lot.

  • steve

    This article is unfocused, jumps around all over the place, and doesn’t provide enough info, on what is supposedly a revolutionary process, WTF.

  • I’ve been hearing this same story for 20 years now but never see it in the market!!!

    • Ronald Brak

      I think you’ve been hanging around the wrong market.

Back to Top ↑