The good news is First Solar has hit a milestone:
A long-sought solar milestone was eclipsed on Tuesday, when Tempe, Ariz.–based First Solar Inc. announced that the manufacturing costs for its thin-film photovoltaic panels had dipped below $1 per watt for the first time.
This isn’t quite where it needs to be to be cost competitive, but it’s an important barrier to crash through. However:
The question, though, is whether First Solar or any other solar manufacturer would be able to handle the flood of orders that would ensue if they reached competitive cost. At that point, it comes down to a matter of having enough of raw materials.
Scalability, our old friend. Apparently, the materials most in use in solar panels throw up roadblocks of their own when produced in bulk. For example:
While silicon is the second-most abundant element in the Earth's crust, it requires enormous amounts of energy to convert into a usable crystalline form.
The article points out that usable items such as copper sulfide, copper oxide and even iron pyrite – fool’s gold – might be plausible, but explains that they are less efficient in converting sunlight into electricity.
All of this might lead to comment about an immature technology versus a mature one (guess which?), but we come not to bury First Solar. Instead, while we note that First Solar is having a rough time in the current economic environment – its stock dropped 20% on word that some of its customers may default – this seems exactly the technology that will be looked at closely in any energy policy.
A bail out? – well, no, we don’t know if the government would directly issue grants to First Solar or simply make it more attractive for businesses and homes to install solar panels, though we suspect the latter is more likely. First Solar can certainly do the work.
Here’s another story by Popular Mechanics’ Alex Hutchinson on the perils and potential of solar power. Good stuff.