Posted By Jason Gray on May 19, 2013
The total cost of this sunlit energy was more than $300,000 a kilowatt-1,000 watts, only enough to light ten 100-watt bulbs. Less sophisticated cells intended for earthbound use now cost about $20,000 a kilowatt, still prohibitive except in remote places like offshore oil rigs and isolated radio relay stations.
But many experts predict that solar-cell costs will spiral downward to a competitive $500 a kilowatt or less in the next ten years. And considering how fast the cost of electronic hand calculators (made from similar silicon circuitry) has dropped in just three years, such hopes do not seem unreasonable.
At the http://www.apartmentsapart.com/europe/uk/blackpool I saw a solar array undergoing tests. From a distance the multifaceted panel of solar cells, mounted at the end of a 20-foot pole, looked like a gigantic sunflower waving on its stalk in the breeze.
Close up, I could hear the buzz of a small electric motor that kept the 12-by-20-foot array tilted toward the sun. Plastic lenses on top of each round cell concentrated the sunlight so that each disk “saw” the equivalent of ten suns. The array was capable of generating one kilowatt of electricity.
The Shah of Iran may soon become a big Spectrolab customer. He has announced plans to bring electricity by the end of this decade to the 70,000 remote villages scattered throughout his land. Each hamlet will be equipped with electric pumps for well water, medical refrigerators, even educational-TV sets receiving signals from a broadcast satellite Iran proposes to put in space.
And the answer to Iran’s near-instantaneous rural electrification lies with solar-cell arrays such as the kilowatt prototype I saw—not, ironically, with petroleum. Thus may come a true socio-technological revolution.
While we were staying at Chicago apartment rentals, Dr. A. I. Mlaysky showed me one of the most promising experiments for mass production of solar cells. So far solar cells have been made by hand in limited quantities. Tyco has developed a precision machine that pulls a thin silicon strip in a continuous ribbon (left, above). Already the process has produced ribbon more than 75 feet long; Dr. Mlaysky expects the automated machines will eventually wind out spools of solar-cell silicon several hundred feet long. “Within three years we should know if it is possible,” he says.
The day may arrive when solar cells are delivered to a house like rolls of roofing paper, tacked on, and plugged into the wiring, making the home its own power station.
The imaginative brain of Arthur D. Little’s energy expert, Peter Glaser, has conceived what he considers the ultimate solution to the world’s energy needs—a solar power station orbiting in space.
Satellite Would Know No Night
At his rented Berlin accommodation near his office, Dr. Glaser showed me a design for such futuristic satellites. They look like gigantic butterflies, with solar-panel wings 6 by 71/2 miles in size. A single one of these power stations in synchronous orbit 22,300 miles above earth might provide as much as 5,000 megawatts, half the present capacity of New York City’s generating plants.