Research breakthrough could slash cost of solar power

April 04, 1991|By Los Angeles Times

Southern California Edison and Texas Instruments Inc. announced yesterday a potential breakthrough in technology that could dramatically reduce the cost of solar-generated electricity.

The new photovoltaic technology, developed in six years of secretive research, is aimed at producing low-cost solar roof panels for residential use. The material looks more like flexible metallic sandpaper than the rigid blue solar cells that have become a familiar part of calculators, highway call boxes and remote communications towers.

By the mid-1990s, Edison hopes to begin marketing a solar-cell system that produces electricity for $1.50 and $2 a watt, compared with current systems' cost of $8 to $15 a watt. At such a price,photovoltaic panels would become accessible to most consumers.

Edison estimates that a 10-by-10-foot square of photovoltaic solar panel on the south-facing roof of a home could produce 2,000 kilowatt hours of electricity annually. The average home uses 6,000 kilowatt hours per year.

Texas Instruments is building a plant in Dallas to develop manufacturing techniques to produce the new material in quantity. The two companies will continue development through 1992, when they will decide whether the new cells meet commercial expectations.

Unlike most solar-cell technologies, the new technique uses low-cost, "metallurgical grade" silicon. Metallurgical silicon costs $1 a pound, compared with as much as $75 for the higher grade,according to Ted Jernigan, a spokesman for Texas Instruments.

But savings are also expected in production, which Mr. Jernigan described as "fairly simple and not at all exotic."

For instance, while most conventional solar cells are sliced from ingots of processed silicon, the new technique forms the silicon into tiny spheres, which are embedded in a mesh formed from heavy aluminum foil.

"Most of the products now must be sliced," said Gary J. Jones, manager for photovoltaic projects at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., a research arm of the U.S. Department of Energy. "You lose the material between the slices. You can end up losing 30 percent to 50 percent of it."

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