For the past few years, it has been assumed that natural gas is the enemy of coal, at least in the United States, where low natural gas prices have eroded marketshare from thermal coal producers. Now, a new adversary is emerging for coal. It comes from silicon wafers, the material used to make solar panels.
According to a post in Saturday’s Quartz, a digital news outlet, a small research facility in Bedford, Massachusetts is helping to perfect a new technique for making silicon wafers, and if successful, it could reduce the cost of solar by 20 percent in the next few years.
“This humble wafer will allow solar to be as cheap as coal and will drastically change the way we consume energy,” Quartz quoted Frank van Mierlo, CEO of 1366 Technologies, the company behind the new method of wafer fabrication.
Quartz continues: The dramatic reduction in cost came from a wide number of incremental gains, says Mark Barineau, a solar analyst with Lux Research. Factors include a new, low-cost process for making polycrystalline silicon; thinner silicon wafers; thinner wires on the front of the module that block less sunlight and use less silver; less-expensive plastics instead of glass; and greater automation in manufacturing.
The site notes that in Saudi Arabia, a 200-megawatt solar plant will produce electricity for 6 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared to electricity from natural gas and coal plants which cost an estimated 6.4 cents and 9.6 cents per kilowatt-hour, respectively, according to the US Energy Information Agency.
So is solar power set to replace coal? Not so fast, says Christopher Helman, a Forbes columnist who researched the topic last year.
According to Helman, even though solar has grown rapidly in the U.S. over the past decade, it is still a relatively small part of the country’s overall energy mix. He writes:
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