Cost and efficiency issues continue to make solar power a tough investment to sell against power generated by fossil fuels. At the present price levels for oil it could still take another ten years of research and development to get solar prices down to the point where they can compete with petroleum, according to some experts. Despite the long path ahead for solar, there is conviction that solar power can become a mainstream source of power.
The biggest challenge is reducing the cost of photo voltaic (PV) panels to the point where interest shifts away from coal, natural gas, petroleum, and other non-renewable sources of electricity. In other words, it has to make economic sense combined with providing other benefits for buyers to choose solar over the other options. Buying is now done with acknowledgement that the cost will be higher but that there are other benefits such as personal energy independence and environmental issues. The tiny size of that market sector will keep a lid on solar sales, even with government incentives such as rebates and tax credits. The math of equation works this way; PV generated energy costs about 35 to 50 cents per kilowatt-hour. The complex of fossil fuel options provides electricity at approximately 5-6 cents per kilowatt-hour, making solar energy six to eight times as expensive. Other challenges include developing cost-effective and longer lasting solar cells as well as reducing the amounts of toxic materials used in the production of the cells.
Experts in the field insist that solar energy doesn’t need to be equal to or less than the cost of electricity produced by traditional methods. Solar’s benefits as a renewable source of clean energy would make it a viable choice for many consumers if costs of photovoltaic energy can be reduced by technological and design advances to about 10 cents per kilowatt-hour. With growing acceptance by consumers, higher production levels for PV panels and other equipment would reduce kW per hour costs even further due to economies of scale.
Beyond electricity produced by photo voltaics is the use of solar panels to power the development of clean burning chemical fuels, splitting hydrogen away from water to be used as fuel, and the development of fuel cells. The promise of solar power may not be a cost effective reality at this point but sunlight as fuel has two powerful characteristics; sunlight is free and more of it hits the surface of the Earth in an hour than could be consumed for the needs of the entire planet in a year.