Emerging Solar Panel Technology

A guest post by John Goetz

Anthony has mentioned previously that he installed solar panels on his roof and, when he was a Trustee for Chico Unified School District, he spearheaded their first ever solar power installation at Little Chico Creek Elementary School.

For years I have wanted to do the same thing. That is, install solar on my home. I am motivated not by a desire to reduce my carbon footprint (which I view as nothing more than a size 10), but more by a desire to lessen my personal use of non-renewable energy sources.

Unlike Anthony, however, I’m cheap. Current technology in silicon solar cells costs about $9/watt. Based on where I live and the sizing of the system, I would be looking at a payback period of 20 years or more on a photovoltaic system, even after tax credits. I have not been able to rationalize the economics around a solution that won’t pay for itself within a few years. Up to this point the longest I have lived in any single home is four years, and I plan to retire and move further south in another five years. So I will never see the economic payback at my current residence. On top of that (pun intended), the shingles on my roof stand a good chance of needing replacement in the next 20 years. I can imagine the cost of re-roofing a home with panels on it will significantly add to the payback time.

The good news is that The silicon shortage that has kept solar electricity expensive is ending. This could mean prices will get down to $5 to $7 per watt in a few years, although that may increase demand enough to drive another shortage, thereby raising prices.

Even better news is an email I received from a company I have been watching for a while: Nanosolar. (Full disclosure – they are privately held and I am not, unfortunately, an investor.) Nanosolar has developed a proprietary ink that allows them to deposit their photovoltaic thin-film semiconductor (copper, indium, gallium, di-selenide, or CIGS) a highly conductive, low-cost foil substrate. This allows them to avoid the need to separately deposit an expensive bottom electrode layer as is required for a non-conductive glass substrate.

Much of the news around breakthrough alternative-energy technologies seems to be followed with statements like “hope to have manufacturing capability in 7 years.” However, the reason Nanosolar sent out their email was to provide a link to a video demonstrating their newly installed manufacturing tool. Here is their email:

Dear Nanosolar friend:

We wanted to let you know of a major milestone in solar energy technology we have now achieved: The solar industry’s first 1GW production tool.

Yes, that’s 1GW of capacity from a single production tool!

You can see it yourself in action in a video we have decided to release and share with you.

Most production tools in the solar industry tend to have 10-30MW in annual production capacity. So how is it possible to have a single tool with Gigawatt throughput?

This feat is fundamentally enabled through the proprietary nanoparticle ink we have invested so many years developing. It allows us to deliver efficient solar cells (presently up to more than 14%) that are simply printed.

Printing is a simple, fast, and robust coating process that in particular eliminates the need for expensive high-vacuum chambers as traditionally used to deposit thin films.

Our 1GW CIGS coater cost $1.65 million. At the 100 feet-per-minute speed shown in the video, that’s an astonishing two orders of magnitude more capital efficient than a high-vacuum process: a twenty times slower high-vacuum tool would have cost about ten times as much per tool.

There’s still a lot of hard work to be done for us to bring solar power everywhere. But at this time we wanted to share with you our excitement about transformational progress happening.

Thank you for your continued support of Nanosolar. While deployment of our product will focus over the next 12 months on installations with our wholesale customers (which includes the world’s largest utility), we are looking forward to making our products more broadly available to everyone in 2009.

Martin Roscheisen

CEO, Nanosolar Inc.

One of Nanosolar’s goals is to bring down the cost of solar power down to $1 per watt. At that level the technology becomes a very attractive option, particularly in new construction. If their company does indeed ramp manufacturing fast enough to serve a broader market in 2009, it should be very interesting to see how rapidly adoption occurs.

I, for one, will be standing in line to install their product.

Ditto that- I want solar on my business – Anthony

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Robert Wood
June 20, 2008 12:02 pm

I’m sorry but there hasn’t been a silicon shortage. There has been a shortage of economically viable technology.
Electronic engineer

Retired Engineer
June 20, 2008 12:19 pm

14% conversion would be astonishing. Most thin film/printed cells are in the range of 3-5%. The best monocrystaline are around 19% (Photonics Spectra, July 2008) You can get higher efficiency with exotic materials, but the costs go through the ceiling.

Jack Simmons
June 20, 2008 12:32 pm

Received same email as you.
Like you, I will be installing this on my house as soon as it is available.
At $1 per watt, a few thousand will meet all my needs, with perhaps a smart interface back into the grid to earn credits during the day.
Great breakthrough.
I may have to keep the fire burning in my fireplace to replace the CO2 not generated via a coal plant. As the globe cools, we’ll need to get as much CO2 up there as possible to prevent a new ice age.

Rick Lambert
June 20, 2008 12:33 pm

You might have a while to wait before Nanosolar is ready to go rooftop. They’re targeting large industrial/small municipal projects in the few MW range at first and apparently have a backorder running tens of months. But a second, much larger factory is scheduled to open in Germany pretty soon. Their first factory is in San Jose. They started shipping in December (for a project in Germany — no surprise there). They don’t use silicon, they use a printable roll-to-roll CIGS, nanoparticle impregnated ink process. And it sounds like they’re really starting to crank! These guys sound very cool, and I wish them the best of luck.

Retired Engineer
June 20, 2008 12:53 pm

My bad. June 2008 Photonics. p.71-74, with efficiency of 6-8%, so 14 is still astonishing. John is right about the cost. Raw panels go for about $6/watt, installed around $10. Leftcoasters can get up to a 50% credit from the utility or the state. Power rating is somewhat dubious. Mfr’s measure at 1kw/m^2, which doesn’t happen too often during the day unless you have a mechanical tracker, with the panels always pointed directly at the sun. Hard to put that on a rooftop. So the cost per real watt is higher. Nano’s website is a bit cryptic, I’d like to see some hard specs.
Lots of folks in SV working on solar, expect some good stuff in the next few years. And, alas, a few FBN’s.

June 20, 2008 1:56 pm

High gas prices are credited with spurring further development of new technology. However, the shift toward developement of more efficient technology has already happened and it is questionable whether further pressure will increase this movement. Now, we should be considering how to deal with the adverse effects of high gas prices.

High Gas Prices Drive Down Fuel Efficiency
We are currently enduring a natural experiment on the effects of higher gas prices. While it has spurred movement toward more efficient technology, it has brought about some severe consequences that will need to be dealt with.
Last month it was reported that driving in the US was down 4.3% in March compared to last year. What everyone missed was that gasoline consumption wasn’t. It was down less than 2%.
For the year, gasoline consumption is down little more than 1/2%.
We aren’t using less fuel, we’re getting less done with the fuel we are using.
If the most efficient driving was being eliminated, it still couldn’t explain the large difference in fuel efficiency. The driving being cut would need to be several times more efficient than normal. This is not plausible.
I have a previous post up with possible ideas of why this is happening.
Among the reasons: Less efficient fuel mixtures may be being used; People are acting on bad advice. We’ve known for awhile now that accelerating faster is more fuel efficient (this is even before considering the beneficial effects on traffic), yet people believe the opposite; People may be driving more at high traffic times to generate needed income and be too tired and poor to drive at other times; And, during the economic slow down, communities may be neglecting good traffic management (e.g. not timing traffic lights properly).
We also need to consider whether higher prices will strengthen the movement toward more efficient technology or have little additional effect (i.e. Has the move already happened and will further price pressure be of no value?).
Additionally, we need to realize that in the mid-term, our current vehicle fleet and the infrastruture to produce more aren’t suddenly going to disappear. New tech won’t wash out these adverse effects.
[The gasoline consumption data can be found here: http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/dnav/pet/xls/pet_cons_wpsup_k_w.xls
It’s in excel format. See U.S. Weekly Finished Motor Gasoline Product Supplied (Thousand Barrels per Day).
The Energy Information Administration defines Production Supplied as their calculation of consumption:

Products Supplied– Approximately represents consumption of petroleum products because it measures the disappearance of these products from primary sources, i.e., refineries, natural gas processing plants, blending plants, pipelines, and bulk terminals. In general, product supplied of each product in any given period is computed as follows: field production, plus refinery production, plus imports, plus unaccounted for crude oil, (plus net receipts when calculated on a PAD District basis), minus stock change, minus crude oil losses, minus refinery inputs, minus exports.

More petrol data can be found here: http://www.eia.doe.gov/oil_gas/petroleum/info_glance/petroleum.html%5D

June 20, 2008 2:12 pm

NREL http://rredc.nrel.gov/solar/old_data/nsrdb/redbook/sum2/state.html has historical data on insolation energy in kWhr/m^2/day that is useful for predicting panel output in most locations in the US. It is based on field measurements. Usually you can just multiply the NREL energy number by the panel efficiency to get an estimate of kWhr electrical output per day per m^2 of panel.
The panel efficiency does not need to be that high if the cost is low. Even 10% efficiency would be acceptable if the cost is a factor of 10 less than silicon panels. A big question is lifetime of an organic/inorganic polymer matrix compared with crystalline silicon. Even if they are free, they will not compete with silicon PV if they need to be replaced every 5 years, because of labor costs. Remember that amorphous Si, which was going to replace crystalline Si, achieved 12% efficiency but never was able to achieve long-term stability. It should be interesting to see how this rolls out over the next few years, as Nanosolar prices its product to maximize profits.

John Galt
June 20, 2008 2:17 pm

There’s a shortage of silicon? I thought it was one of the most common elements in earth!
Here’s a different way to put solar to use:
In the summer, cover your roof with a light-colored, perhaps reflective tarp. In the winter, flip it over so that black side is up. This will reflect light when it’s warm out and and absorb it when it’s colder out.
Now if somebody could build shingles that change their albedo automagically in response to temperate and light and make them affordable, they’ll be rich. Just remember to send me a check for the idea.
REPLY: Shortage of processed pure crystalline silicon – Anthony

Rick Lambert
June 20, 2008 2:27 pm

Aaron, my guess is that though you said gasoline you mean petroleum products. Consequently, my guess is that higher gas prices are having more of an impact on personal car travel rather than on the trucking industry. That’s not to say that the trucking industry isn’t affected, just that I presume there is less demand elasticity in it. And since trucks get fewer MPG than cars, that might explain the discrepancy. But that’s a guess.

George Pratt
June 20, 2008 2:42 pm

What really puzzles me is the shear quantity of solar cells they are talking about making. They claim the machine can make 1 GW per year worth of solar panels. That is about 1/3 of all the solar energy generated in world. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photovoltaic). So in one year, one machine will add 1/3 to the total world solar energy capacity, wow.
And if they are selling their panels at $5.00 a watt, that means they will take in over $5 Billion in the next year. Unless the ink is made from powdered Unicorn horn (or something just as rare and expensive) they are going to be making an amazing amount of money.
I hope this is real but this sounds a lot like the “Cold Fusion” fraud nearly 20 years ago.

June 20, 2008 2:50 pm

Sorry folks, but unless the solar cells return more energy over their lifetime than they take to manufacture they aren’t an energy source.
Nano solar may have overcome this but most of these alternate energy schemes are actually about tax farming.

Chris K.
June 20, 2008 3:44 pm

I have looked at these guys in the past. Very interesting product. Does anybody know if this is the same technology as Iowa Thin Film developed? I know they have product,but it is somewhat limited in availability. If these companies can get the product to market eventually in the 1-3.00/watt range I have a feeling demand is going to be pretty great. Heck,I would fully A/C my soon to be built shop here in Florida at that price…

Evan Jones
June 20, 2008 4:01 pm

Interesting article.
I am motivated not by a desire to reduce my carbon footprint (which I view as nothing more than a size 10), but more by a desire to lessen my personal use of non-renewable energy sources.
However, I think that is a misplaced motivation. I admire the “I’m cheap,” one much more.
According to Kudlow, we have over 400 billion bbls potential reserve in Bakken (sweet, but requiring side drilling).
We have nearly a trillion in shale, (recoverable by today’s tech) in the Rockies. Several trillion by tech-to-come.
Note the use of the word “potential”. That is the only sensible mode of measure when considering if we are “running out”. All other measures are merely tactical.
The world currently uses c. 30 billion bbls. per year. So the problem really isn’t one of conserving “non-renewable resources” in the sense of oil.
I think those who believe in the current “peak oil” mantra are about as offbase as AGW proponents.
HOWEVER, wealth, once expended, is gone. So I heartily encourage you to pursue anything that will save you money (which you will either spend on other things, or will bank/invest).
Without tax credits, which are, themselves, a waste of wealth.
If Nanosolar is a solid economic (and energy-efficient) endeavor–without gummint training wheels–then I am very much in favor of it. I don’t know what will turn out to be the “energy of the future”. But I am quite convinced that we will still have plenty of fossil fuels on hand when it is discovered, and the switchover will occur because we want to, not because we have to..

Tom Bruno
June 20, 2008 5:12 pm

Let me put a different spin on the need for solar. I am looking into limited use of solar for one purpose. To run my well pump after a hurricane takes out our power lines and repair time is 2-3 weeks. Cost is not an issue, having running water is. A bank of 3 marine batteries, rechargable by solar would give me enough power to turn on the well pump for the short time I would need it to run. I can stockpile food, drinking water, and other supplies, I cannot go without running water for showers, cleaning and toilets. Now if I can get away with a small windmill without the County Code inspector finding out …….

Stan Needham
June 20, 2008 5:55 pm

I had an interesting solar panel installation on my previous house, first installed in 1979. It was a sealed liquid system designed just to heat my hot water, a task it did efficiently that I blew several relief valves on the storage tank the first year or two. It was mounted on the roof of my garage which had a 10/12 pitch roof facing within a couple degrees of true South. With the tax credits available at the time, the payback was around 7 years, IIRC. In 1981, 30 days out of its 5 year warranty, my original air to air heat pump self-destructed and I installed one of the first closed-loop geothermal systems in Northeastern Indiana. To make it even more unique, we connected the ground loop with the solar panels via a heat exchanger, controlled by a heat-sensitive switch. In the winter, when the solar panels couldn’t get my hot water above 80 degrees, it switched over and gave the geothermal loop a boost. On a sunny, 25 degree winter day, I’d get around a 3-4 degree boost in the ground loop. It was all pretty cutting edge back in the early 80’s.

Robert Wood
June 20, 2008 6:13 pm

Anthony :
Cheaper, but less efficient, solar cells use poly-silicon. They are still expensive.
I am not decrying attempts to use solar power. I just decry the uneconomical. The “renewable” energy sources, such as wind, rain, sun, tides, waves, convicts, are only economic because governments are subsidising them with the money of real power users. It is a scam. I do hope that some technological miracle will arrive eventually, but for now, these sources have only limited economical application,
We’ll probably get fusion going before then.

old construction worker
June 20, 2008 6:17 pm

‘But a second, much larger factory is scheduled to open in Germany pretty soon.’
So, a larger factory will be built overseas. I wonder why? Maybe too much red tape here at home?

June 20, 2008 6:26 pm

This is hopeful news. 24 years ago I built my house with a roof pitch equal to my latitude in expectation of panels being cost-effective in a few years. I’m still waiting, but maybe not for another quarter century.

Stu Miller
June 20, 2008 6:35 pm

How long does it take for solar exposure to either destroy the ink or the underlying film? Do the panels actually last long enough to produce more power than their construction used? In what climates?

June 20, 2008 6:37 pm

I wonder if this is the same process that is being developed by First Solar in Germany? It certainly sounds very similar, curious to know if anyone has any info on this.
also, in regard to the comment on peak oil – I do think there is a very good case to be made for it, but as usual the concept has been way oversold and most people who use the term have no idea what the theory actually says. The theory does NOT say that the age of oil is though, but simply that our rate of production has peaked and from now on, the rate of new discoveries will never do more than equal the decline rate in old discovered fields. The numbers support that idea. However, with enough exploration (like the oil shales) then levels near current production can be maintained for many years.
The shale oil formations, such as the Bakken, the Haynesville, and the Marcellus are good examples of this proposition. They have very good reserves, but they are difficult and expensive to produce, and so production will be stretched across many years. The amount will be good, but the rate will be slow. That’s what peak oil is all about – our rate has peaked, and will not be topped. With regard to prices, this means that prices will continue to rise until demand destruction begins to take hold. And this seems to already be happening.

Wyatt A
June 20, 2008 6:41 pm

Won’t all these panels need massive inverters to change the DC to AC?

June 20, 2008 7:00 pm

George Pratt (14:42:49) :
“I hope this is real but this sounds a lot like the “Cold Fusion” fraud nearly 20 years ago.”
And I hope this doesn’t start a long, fruitless discussion. Cold fusion hasn’t gone away, people still keep coming up with stuff that can’t be readily explained away. I don’t think it’s a fraud, but it may yet be delusional. I haven’t gone looking for information for a few years, but I fell across and interesting experiment a couple days ago.
Suffice it to say that Nanosolar has a lot more to show for their efforts.
The links below go to that cold fusion experiment. You’ll also find comments about Nature saying it doesn’t happen, congresscritters blocking research, basically all the same stuff used against Svensmark’s Galactic Cosmic Ray hypothesis. Oh my – I see a comment wondering if Arata is seeing muon catalysed fusion. Maybe cold fusion only works when the sun is quiet? 🙂
http://physicsworld.com/blog/ (Other stuff)

Suba F.
June 20, 2008 7:27 pm

Evan Jones (16:01:50) :
To your list of resources, you forgot to add coal. Coal to Liquids which is viable at current crude prices are sufficient to last for the 200 odd years. And which country has the largest coal reserves in the world? Yes, the USA.
The problem is not availability and potential. The problem is that the USA will never be allowed to develop these resources by the warming alarmist fifth column who control the media, acedemia, entertainment and very soon the government.
The congress is busy putting restrictions on drilling for oil anywhere. The liberal govenor and senator from Colorado are doing their best to delay and stifle oil shale exploration. Coal to liquids is buried in a mountain of bureaucracy that I will confidently predict that not a single plant will be built in the US (while China, India and South Africa will build hundreds, considerably lessening their exposure to the world crude markets).
Do you or anyone else on this forum want to speculate on why these entities seem intent on destroying the US’s current economic standing by dramatically increasing the cost of energy?
Suba F.

June 20, 2008 7:28 pm

Cold fusion isn’t a fraud. The original discovery was made at the time the carbon scam was ramping up. The prospect of cheap carbon free energy would have killed the carbon scam stone dead. So a campaign was launched to label cold fusion a fraud. It was remarkably similar to the recent campaigns to label climate sceptics, deniers, etc. Not surprising, seeing it was orchestrated by the same people.
The Japanese continued working on cold fusion and are now giving demos of their device. I understand there has also been succesful work in Italy.

Tom in Texas
June 20, 2008 8:35 pm

Robert: “convicts…”
Just spit my Miller on my monitor. Still laughing.

Mike Kelley
June 20, 2008 8:40 pm

I talked to a guy who works at a company that trucks food all around this region. They have lowered the maximum speed on their trucks a few mph. This is done electronically by the management to save fuel.

anna v
June 20, 2008 8:52 pm

Let me say a few words on cold fusion, as I worked at a nuclear physics center at the time and followed the process through the rise and fall.
It is unfair to say mainstream research suppressed cold fusion and that it is similar to the present AGW monopoly of resources.
Everybody was very excited in the beginning. People started thinking and setting up experiments about it. Of course there was a reaction, but it would not have been enough to suppress the young bushy tailed researchers (they do exist) if the results were positive. People trying to reproduce the results slowly became disillusioned, the data did not add up, and the total energy produced was of the same order of magnitude as the chemical energy used to create the palladium matrix, i.e. chemical. Nuclear is orders of magnitude over chemical.
I am ever optimistic and wish luck to this new set up. After all once you take away the electrons and bring them close D2 +D2 do make He.

Evan Jones
June 20, 2008 9:01 pm

The theory does NOT say that the age of oil is though, but simply that our rate of production has peaked and from now on, the rate of new discoveries will never do more than equal the decline rate in old discovered fields.
Yes, i know. (It was supposed to happen 30 years ago.)
The numbers support that idea.
The numbers always have supported that. But the numbers (or more precisely), the projected numbers have been wrong. Every time. Since before 1859. According to the numbers we have been going to run out of oil in 30 years (or much sooner) for the past 140 years.
However, with enough exploration (like the oil shales) then levels near current production can be maintained for many years.
I predict that with greatly increased demand, there will be a great amount more exploration and refinery capacity. More discovery, more ability to use previously uneconomical sources. More resources will be devoted to it and greater return will be realized.
Supply and Demand. It’s not just a good idea, it’s the Law.

Evan Jones
June 20, 2008 9:12 pm

To your list of resources, you forgot to add coal.
Yes, I left out gassification of coal. (I didn’t forget, I just left it out.)
I was told in 3rd grade that the world would be out of coal by 2025. And iron. (5% of the earth’s crust is iron.)
The experts and agencies are great for predicting next year’s production. they are–horrible–at predicting next decade’s production.
I agree there will be political obstacles, but $5 a gallon oil carries a “crude” political weight all its own. Even McCain is waffling on the issue now.
And if the US blocks itself, you can bet other countries won’t.
But I still support and encourage any form of power that is profitable. If a great solar solution can be found, I’m fine with that. Get rid of unreasonable obstacles and all perks for oil and its competitors and let the market and individual genius decide.

June 20, 2008 9:39 pm

Ain’t it great
there is no world state?
I’d be irate
If I couldn’t leave this place.

June 20, 2008 10:01 pm

Less efficient fuel mixtures may be being used;
Ding, Ding, Ding!!!!
That, and EPA emmissions regulations. Why is a 4 cyl Chevy Malibu today getting worse mileage than my v-6 did in 2000? Why is an over the road truck getting LESS mileage today than one built 15 years ago???? Emmission regulations. We’ve forced the manufacturers down the rathole of meeting emmissions standards, instead of developing for fuel efficiency, less maintenance, etc, etc. Costs of running the new tier 3 diesels is astronomical.

Perry Debell
June 20, 2008 10:41 pm

As this stack of comments has roamed all over the place, here’s my contribution. It’s a Wikipedia link, but Google EEStor anyway for many other links. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EEstor
If really practical, electrically propelled vehicles, do become viable, then I predict that buying the electricity at a fuel station will cost more than electricity for the house as governments will want to maintain their revenue flow. Recharging at home will also be taxed. Lest anybody jest, read about the complications in the UK over red diesel for pleasure boating. The RYA and BMF (British Marine Federation) can now confirm that the key features of the new scheme for charging duty on marine diesel to be introduced by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) with effect from 1 November 2008 will be:
• Private users can continue to use marked fuel (red diesel) providing they make a simple declaration to the supplier and pay the full duty rate for heavy oil;
• Registered Dealers in Controlled Oils (RDCOs) will be responsible for declaring the duty collected to HMRC; and,
• Fuel purchased for domestic use (i.e. not for propulsion of the craft) can continue to be purchased at the rebated rate.
HMRC have yet to issue a public statement but have released to the RYA its Impact Assessment which is available in related links above.
Under the new scheme, HMRC envisage that boaters will ‘self declare’ whether they are a commercial or recreational vessel and recreational vessels will pay the full duty rate. Fuel used for heating purposes on board will continue to be sold at the rebated rate of duty and the retailer will take the owner’s word, again based on self declaration, on what proportion is for heating or lighting and what is for propulsion.
Are these people buffoons? Oh yes!

kum dollison
June 20, 2008 10:46 pm

As some of you know, I’m an ethanol supporter. However, in today’s engines ethanol does not get as good mileage as straight gasoline. Our gasoline now contains, on average, about 6.3% ethanol. That’s probably reducing overall gas mileage by about one percent. *Note: when you read gasoline supplied/used stats from the Gov they’re including the ethanol in the mix. (I hope this in not as unclear as I fear it is.) 🙂

David Walton
June 20, 2008 10:56 pm

This is an IPO I will be looking for.

June 21, 2008 12:21 am

STE (Solar Thermal Energy) seems to be a secret: http://ausra.com/. Vinod Khosla and Kliner-Perkins have their money there. Seems to be a relatively low tech system.
“Study: Solar Thermal Power Could Supply Over 90 percent of U.S. Grid Plus Auto Fleet ”
Any ideas?

June 21, 2008 1:42 am

“So, a larger factory will be built overseas. I wonder why? ”
Because that is where the customers are.

June 21, 2008 3:35 am

Debell: the fuss about red diesel for pleasure boating seems a bit odd given that we (British) are now allowed to process 2500 litres per year of biodiesel tax-free. That’s 5000 litres per couple. (Can you count children too?) And all you have to do (I assume) is bring some vegetable oil home from the supermarket and declare a bit of hocus-pocus over it.

Jack Simmons
June 21, 2008 5:57 am

Evan Jones
If there was ever an example of an oil field putting an end to the notion of peak oil, it is the Bakken.
Some large numbers are being tossed around on the size of the field, but even if off by half, we’re looking at something on the size of the Saudi fields.
In addition to the huge potential, the ownership of the lands is private. Which means it will be poor wheat farmers in Montana and North Dakota who will decide if and when someone can drill for the oil there. No government bureaucrats susceptible to political pressures will be making these decisions, as is the case here in Colorado with regard to the oil shales.
Things are really hopping up there too. Already, North Dakota is setting new records in oil production. The only drawback now is the lack of infrastructure to move the oil out of the region where it is needed. It is only a matter of time before this is realized.
The structure is a challenge. There are two layers of shale sandwiching a layer of dolomite, the dolomite being the actual oil bearing structure. Thick Oreo cookie. The dolomite has to be fractured to increase the permeability, allowing the oil to flow. From what I have read, the dolomite averages only about 10 feet in thickness. The entire formation is deep, around 10,000 feet. All of the above indicates a need for horizontal drilling, well within the skill sets of today’s drillers.
One company paid $1.65 billion to acquire the rights to about 150,000 acres of land in North Dakota. The president of the company believes they will harvest about 3 billion barrels from this field. $300 billion worth of oil for $1.65 billion. Not a bad trade.
The oil is very low in sulfur, making it very attractive to everyone.
Another company, PetroBank http://www.petrobank.com, has developed a technology for harvesting heavy crudes bound in shale. They claim a very high recovery rate. This will permit the processing of tar sands without the need for digging up the countryside, as is the case now. This will lower the cost of tar sands both economically and environmentally. Again, resources measured in the billions of barrels.
I used to believe in the concept of peak oil, but not in my lifetime.

June 21, 2008 6:08 am

Sanyo and Sharp are two companies in Japan that has made it a company goal to supply solar panels.
Sharp claims to have the largest market share: http://www.sharp.co.jp/sunvista/about/result.html (sorry its in Japanese.) They are “red” on the graph you see.
Sanyo claims to have a 19.7% conversioin efficiency. http://www.sanyo.com/solar/history/index.html (This one is in English)
Both of thse companies have staked their company fortunes on Solar Technology. Both are based on Silicon Technology. It will be interesting to see how they work with Nanosolar…

June 21, 2008 6:53 am

John- Thanks for the update on lifetimes. I found another interesting news item on CIGS panels.
June 12, 2008-
“Vitex Systems says it has achieved a “key breakthrough” in protecting flexible copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) solar cells with its “Flexible Glass,” achieving 1100 hrs of testing in high-temperature and humidity conditions with stable efficiency.
CIGS has shown promise to achieve production efficiencies using low-cost roll-to-roll manufacturing, but like cadmium telluride (CdTe) cells they are sensitive to moisture and oxygen, and commercially-available flexible CIGS solar cells typically carry a lifetime guarantee of only a couple of years, the company notes. Encapsulating in rigid glass extends that lifetime but also adds weight and costs (production and shipping/installation) as well as less flexibility in packaging.
Tests are continuing to determine the devices’ ultimate lifetime, though Vitex’s Chyi-Shan Suen, director of business development, notes that early internal tests have extended to >4000 hours under such conditions, maintaining ~80% of the cell’s original performance.”
If Nanosolar has achieved 25 year lifetimes with a low-cost process, that is a remarkable breakthrough.

June 21, 2008 7:38 am

These are my actual and current prices for various kinds of energy:
100 cu ft natural gas contains 0.103 mmBTU costs $1.375 = $13.35 / mmBTU
1 kwH electricity contains 0.003413 mmBTU costs $0.17 = $49.81 / mmBTU
1 gal gasoline contains 0.115 mmBTU costs $3.919 = $34.08 / mmBTU
Observations, electricity is very expensive in Texas thanks to democrats/socialists restricting supply and driving up costs, thank you very much. Second, I really cannot see myself very interested in purchasing an electric car that I would need to plug in at night since electricity is the highest cost energy I buy. Third, I would love to find a real world, cost effective solution to generating electricity and if solar panels really were cost effective, I would jump on it. Although, I would have to think about how I could generate enough new carbon emmissions to balance this action – don’t want to cause a new ice age by withholding CO2 from the atmosphere 🙂

Rick Lambert
June 21, 2008 7:54 am

Jack Simmons: Things are really hopping up there too. Already, North Dakota is setting new records in oil production. The only drawback now is the lack of infrastructure to move the oil out of the region where it is needed. It is only a matter of time before this is realized.
Who is paying for developing the infrastructure?
The structure is a challenge. There are two layers of shale sandwiching a layer of dolomite, the dolomite being the actual oil bearing structure. Thick Oreo cookie. The dolomite has to be fractured to increase the permeability, allowing the oil to flow. From what I have read, the dolomite averages only about 10 feet in thickness. The entire formation is deep, around 10,000 feet. All of the above indicates a need for horizontal drilling, well within the skill sets of today’s drillers.
Interestingly, these are the kinds of technologies that may well benefit the hot dry rock geothermal industry as well.
The USGS recently published a report on the Bakken field:
In short, they came up with an estimate of 3 to 4.3 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil. That’s obviously well below the estimated size of the entire resource. The USGS based their estimates on current techhology. Now, it may be that new technologies will be developed to increase the number some time in the future. But the same could be said for many other industries as well. Moreover, from what I’ve read the yields on existing wells are slow, because once you drill horizonally and fracture the surrounding rock, you have to wait for the oil to seep into the void. It’s not like you get spouting geysers. I’m not against drilling there. I see no reason why not. But at the moment Bakken doesn’t look like a game-changer.
Also by the way, Robert Rapier at R-Squared Energy Blog has a good article about Shell’s attempts to develop a freeze containment technique to extract oil from the shale. If it works it could improve yields dramatically, but it would also be energy intensive and require large amounts of water — in other words, it would share many of the same drawbacks as harvesting oil from tar sands.

June 21, 2008 10:09 am

A lot of the claims of solar efficiencies from the new technologies are somewhat overblown. I’ll believe them when the commercial products hit the road. This isn’t my opinion – its the opinion of experts in the field – check out
However, as I like to blabber on about, it all gets down to cost. I saw a mention that if nanosolar could make $5/watt, they’d be rich rich rich! Well, they won’t. A great site to check out for solar pricing is
They put the average price for a solar module at $4.82 – these type are crystalline with efficiencies in the 15-17% range. Thin film run to the 11-12% (and the lowest price is a dollar cheaper). The new printed thin film technology is rumored to be in the 6-7% efficiency, and the rumors are that the cost will be $1/watt.
Now, there’s more to it than the panel. Without tax breaks (many of which are vanishing at the close of the year) you are looking at $9/W, of which ~$5/W is module related. The rest is for inverter, batteries, manufacturing, installation, profit…
So, lets assume that cost drops to say, $0.50/W – you’re looking at half the cost of solar as it currently sits. With the expected lifespans of these systems, you are approaching break even over a 25 year time frame. That’s pretty good.
Now, a house that uses around 900 KWh per month will require a 5KW system to completely power it. At current prices of $9000/kw, that’s $45K. If you assume that the cost of electricity is $0.10/kWh, the payback period with no interest and not including inflation (I’m not going into present value analysis that would make this worse) you’re looking at 40 years payback. With the price of a module going to $0.50/W the payback period goes to 20 years. Now, California electricity prices are greater than this because we don’t build new power plants (we constantly hang on the edge of the supply/demmand curve). So, say $0.20/W and you have a ten year payback, but probably 20 years with interest.
Overall, its a good development. I have more to say, but my 2.5 year old just got up and wants waffles… 😉

June 21, 2008 11:18 am

So I did some further calculations, and my earlier back of the envelope calcs were almost right on. For a station at Mt Diablo, CA, the breakeven point is about $0.18/kwh over 20 years assuming 7% interest on a loan. Now, that doesn’t include cloudy days, that reduce solar to about 20% (that by the way is why solar thermal only works in sunny environs – it won’t work at all without direct sun…) But I would say that even $1/W will be a huge step forward, and you’ll see a large movement towards solar. You’ll still need utilities in the winter and in the cloudy areas of the country.
Couple of issues. I don’t think the lifespan will much exceed 20 to 25 years. The typical warrenty on solar is a guarantee of no more of a loss than 20% over 20 years. I would say the failure rate accelerates beyond that time. Also, invertors only have about a ten year lifespan (so expect a $1/W charge every ten years, which I didn’t work into the price. Invertor costs may reduce, and lifespans increase, but that’s not where the tech development is being placed right now because the return on investment isn’t as good as for modules. Battery technology is very mature, and I don’t expect the prices to drop – they may in fact rise because they are largely based on material costs and as demand increases, battery costs will also increase.
I’m a big pro nuclear guy, but I give this development a thumbs up if it actually comes through.
This says nothing about transportation however, because the demand for batteries are going to have a real impact on their price, and may in fact blow all my calcs away… A nuclear methanol based economy could however solve that issue.

Rick Lambert
June 21, 2008 11:21 am

Robert Wood: I just decry the uneconomical.
Are superfund sites uneconomical? I would say they are. Unfortunately, it’s mostly government money expended to clean them up. That’s the problem I have with the argument that “government should stay out of the way”, because all too often in the past they did stay out of the way — and it’s ultimately the taxpayers, homeowners, and other “little guys” that end up getting soaked on the back end. If a superfund site appears in your “backyard”, go ahead and try to sell your house. But of course that’s your problem at that point, not those that caused the problem in the first place. Too bad for you.
On that note, allow me to revisit the drawbacks involved in harvesting tar sands. Not only does it require copious amounts of natural gas and water, but, IMO, the tar sand industry is an enviromental catastrophe in the making. Not only are the tailing ponds profoundly toxic (no one disputes that), there is no viable plan in place to deal with them. At this point, that’s considered an issue to be tackled in the future. But there are already signs that they’re leaching heavy metals and other toxic compounds into the groundwater. The air downwind from the tar pits is getting more acidic. It’s becoming less and less rare for people living in the area to contract rare forms of cancer. Is this kind of thing really what we want? It doesn’t sound so economical to me. Okay, maybe for the oil companies. But not in the long run.
So IMO, what is considered “uneconomical” needs to be considered in a broad context. This may be an extreme way of stating it, but it does seem apparent that even in its most extreme version some actually believe it. And that is this: government always makes mistakes but industry never does. A brief visit to the superfund site I linked to above should dispel anyone of that notion. Thus, in consideration of the potential hazzards that they may have to deal with at the back end, I don’t see any reason why governments should not incentivize, even invest in, alternatives on the front end when the back end burdens of those alternatives are less likely to be as large.
I wrote the foregoing and was ready to post it when I read Brendan(10:09:37)’s treatise. It was excellent! He made very important distinctions between manufacturing cost (cost/W) and retail cost (cost/kWh to the customer) (forgive me for construeing it that simply, but that’s basically what he did). But I think what he failed to mention is that once you figure out your retail cost you basically lock it in for the lifetime of the installation. No longer do you have to deal with the vagaries of things like fossil fuel prices, potential carbon add-ons, or whatever else dynamically affects the retail cost of your supply.

June 21, 2008 11:21 am

I forgot one comment on solar thermal. Its cost function is very similar to current solar, so theoretically the high temps could be used as process heat and could supply 90% of the us auto fleet with methanol. But the cost is substantial. More later…

June 21, 2008 12:01 pm

Rick is right – its all economics. I’m not sure the oil shale is economically viable. Certainly solar isn’t right now (I don’t count gov’t tax breaks because its just someone else paying for it). If Nanosolar can acheive its claims, it is indeed a huge breakthrough.

June 21, 2008 12:59 pm

Rick Lambert, that’s a good guess. I think I’ll add that to my post. However, I doubt trucking has increased. There must be an increase in inefficient driving to explain the large shift.

June 21, 2008 12:59 pm

And reduced traffic should improve the trucking efficiency as well.

June 21, 2008 1:06 pm

Kim, it’s my understanding that ethanol was added to gasoline because it increased efficiency and caused less wear on engines (prevented gunk from building up). Up to about 15%. After that, it causes a decline in efficiency. (please don’t make me look it up, I have repetitive stress problems.)

retired engineer
June 21, 2008 1:41 pm

Ethanol (and MTBE) were added to reduce emissions. And it works, I have test data before and after for all the beaters I drove. It does reduce mileage. Ethanol has about 60% of the energy per gallon. A tad higher ‘octane’ rating can make up for some of it. Without special tuning, you also get a bit of formaldehyde, which is not so good.
I’d like to see the total cost of production, from farming to harvest to final product, including energy input and fresh water. As well as ‘lost opportunity’ from what the water and electricity didn’t do. I think you’ll find that ethanol should remain in beer and not in cars.
As to solar economics, be sure to include % of sunny days. Won’t get full output when the sun is not bright.

June 21, 2008 2:24 pm

Rick Lambert,
you think Gubmint stayed out of too much.
Please explain why the polluters who caused the superfund sites were not hunted down and required to fund ALL the clean up.

kum dollison
June 21, 2008 3:31 pm

Aaron, the ethanol thing is very complex. Retired Engineer is right, in that ethanol has only 76,000 btus/gal, whereas gasoline has about 116,000. However, ethanol is 113 Octane vs gasoline’s 86, or so.
Octane burns Very efficiently at high Compression, but, less so at 9:1, or so, where most passenger cars reside. This means that you can burn it in a small, very high compression engine and get the same power/mileage as gasoline in a larger lower compression engine.
As I said, it’s Very complex. But, the bottom line is that a ten percent blend in your car will, probably, result in about 1.0 to 1.5% less mileage.
The real “kicker,” and, not understood part, is that many cars will get better mileage on either a 20%, or 30% blend of ethanol than with straight gasoline.
Bottom, Bottom Line: Beware all one sentence definitive statements on ethanol. It’s not weather science; but, it’s not simple, either.

kum dollison
June 21, 2008 3:34 pm
June 21, 2008 3:57 pm

Thanks John! That’s because I used basic data – the same thing the calculators use. I was trying to calculate what it would take to largely remove you from the grid (including batteries to take you into the night hours). The systems as installed for homes actually may be cheaper because utilities would likely buy daytime electricity back from a consumer at higher prices and sell them cheap power at night. That would mean many less batteries, and a generally better overall cost. Regardless – if nanosolar can make $0.50/W -$1.00/W solar modules, the overall electrical energy market will draastically change – and this will have an impact on transportation at some point.
I’m not sure you’ll see reliable low cost solar modules for a few years… Wait and see!
MTBE and ethanol were not intorduced to reduce wear on engines. They were both mandated as oxygenates (with MTBE being the preferred oxygenate) to cause more even burning in carburated engines and to reduce overall emissions. It was abright idea. Unfrotunately, God invented EFI before oxygenates had their full effect, and EFI had substantially greater impact on emissions reductions. Studies out of UC Berkeley using the Caldicut tunnel showed no impact on emissions from the introduction of oxygenates -merely the impact of older vehicles being removed from the fleet – a gradual decrease in emissions quality (the exception was the elimination of benzene which did indeed have a huge impact). However, CARB and EPA continued to insist that the oxygenates were having a huge impact even as their impact to groundwater grew.
Oxygenates and the various witches brews of low emission fuels could be eliminated tomorrow and the impact would be a drop in prices in California by about $0.35/gal and elsewhere by about $0.15/gal. And that’s not including the price of ethanol – that’s merely the impact of having a Tower of Babel fuel program across the US…

Rick Lambert
June 21, 2008 3:58 pm

KuhnKat (14:24:28) Please explain why the polluters who caused the superfund sites were not hunted down and required to fund ALL the clean up.
Heck, that’s easy: the compant or companies most directly responsible declare bankruptcy. Even if a few of the principals ultimately face criminal charges, what good does it do from an economic perspective?
Any other questions?
Pardon me for saying so, but too often the attitude is that if gubmint gets too involved, gubmint is to blame. If gubmint doesn’t get involved enough, gubmint is to blame. Sounds to me like gubmint can’t catch a break no matter what it does, and industry never even has to try no matter what it does. If you disagree, how so?

June 21, 2008 4:14 pm

Superfund sites: Where the originators are identified, they do pay for the cleanup. Most of the “gubmint” sites are either due to midnight dumpers or result from the “gubmint” themselves. Regardless -when much of these releases occured (not all, but many) there was little understanding of what the results would be. This isn’t all of course – well into the 80s there were still companies trying to get away with dumping, with even the rare company trying to get away with it today. But to think that companies in the US (and I can’t speak to their international subsidiaries) would try to get away with it in general is conspiracy think. They are much more afraid ofthe bad press. Yes, they try to approach the cleanup in a slow fashion. I won’t get into the reasons for it, except to say if there was no resistance, almost infinite amounts of money (instead of the merely hundreds of billions) would have been poured into these sites, and the results would have been much the same. Gunk goes easily into soil, and comes out slowly, limited by difussion in many cases.
I do have one final story to tell – or to point to – the poster child for the environmental movement – Love Canal. The reason for that mess was not the landfill owners, but greedy school district owners who ignored all deed and safety restricitions placed on that site when they were forced to transfer the property. The story can be found here…

June 21, 2008 5:58 pm

Sometimes ago, bacteria were discovered that could breakdown PCBs. One more case of serendipity. Also, there was a concern about landfills that organic matter would soon fill them up. Apparently that problem was solved too via bacteria with methane as a byproduct.

Evan Jones
June 21, 2008 6:31 pm

I don’t object to the concept of superfund. It istaking care of past pollution (those who did it were not under restrictions and/or are long gone).
So in theory, it’s not inappropriate that the government handle it. (As a temporary measure. The way Hubert Humphrey SAID affirmative action was supposed to work.) I don’t know how well superfund is being handled, though.
Current pollution is a different story. There’s less of it and there are laws covering cleanup.

David Segesta
June 22, 2008 2:59 pm

What do we do in Michigan when we don’t see the sun for a week at a time?
Or when the solar collector is buried under 6 inches of sow?

June 22, 2008 3:21 pm

A more efficient and cost effective renewable energy system is needed.
A more efficient and cost effective renewable energy system is needed.
To accelerate the implementation of renewable electric generation with added incentives and a FASTER PAYBACK – ROI. (A method of storing energy, would accelerate the use of renewable energy) A greater tax credit, accelerated depreciation, funding scientific research and pay as you save utility billing. (Reduce and or eliminates the tax on implementing energy efficiency, eliminate increase in Real estate Taxes for energy efficiency improvement).
In California, you also have the impediment, that when there are an interruption of power supply by the Utility you the consumer cannot use your renewable energy system to provide power.
In today’s technology there is automatic switching equipment that would disconnect the consumer from the grid, which would permit renewable generation for the consumer even during power interruption. Energy storage technology must advance substantially. “Energy conservation through energy storage”.
New competition for the world’s limited oil and natural gas supplies is increasing global demand like never before. Reserves are dwindling. These and other factors are forcing energy prices to skyrocket here at home. It’s affecting not just the fuel for our cars and homes, but it’s driving up electricity costs, too. A new world is emerging. The energy decisions our nation makes today will have huge implications into the next century.
A synchronous system with batteries allows the blending of a PV with grid power, but also offers the advantage of “islanding” in case of a power failure. A synchronous system automatically disconnects the utility power from the house and operates like an off-grid home during power failures. This system, however, is more costly and loses some of the efficiency advantages of a battery-less system.
We’re surrounded by energy — sun, wind, water. The problem is harnessing it in an economical way.
Jay Draiman, Northridge, CA
June 19, 2008
Jay Draiman Energy Development Specialist provides expertise in all sectors of the energy and utility industry.
Over 20 years experience. Specializing in: Energy Audit, Telecom audit, Utility bills audit and review for refunds or better rates, Demand Management, Energy Efficiency review and implementation, Renewable Energy, Lighting Retrofit, Solar Energy, Wind Energy, Fuel-Cell, Thermal imaging, Rainwater harvesting, Energy conservation, Ice Storage, Water conservation methods, Energy and telecom audit and procurement
Much is at stake when policy makers, regulators, and corporate executives face the challenges of evolving energy markets and efficiency.

Jim Arndt
June 22, 2008 8:07 pm

I know you have heard this before in 5 or 10 years we will see solar really takeoff “EH” LOL. When they run the first steel mill or heavy equipment off of solar then I will be a believer.

June 23, 2008 5:31 am

What do we do in Michigan when we don’t see the sun for 2-4 months and there is a foot of snow?

Evan Jones
June 23, 2008 8:11 am

What do we do in Michigan when we don’t see the sun for a week at a time?
What you do is vote for the guy who is anti-energy. Why you do this I am not quite sure I understand.

Alan Chappell
June 24, 2008 6:33 am

‘Old construction worker’
Germany has 1/3 of the worlds tax laws, you can only drive around a traffic island once (2 times is an offence of $160 ) you cannot mix plastic with paper in the garbage containers ( outside our house there is 9 different colored containers ) Garbage police carry guns, in the winter you cannot leave your car engine running, to paint your kitchen, you must employ a ‘Maister’ you cannot do it yourself, a registered business of 2 people must employ a full time bookkeeper, it is illegal to go up a stepladder or mobile device more than 3 feet without a licence ( to get a licence is 12 weeks school) there are towns in Germany without street lights because they have no licenced people,
to work as a shop assistant is impossible if you comply with the law, and you say “maybe they have less red tape over there?

June 24, 2008 9:08 am

When I put ethanol blend in my car, the mileage drops 10 to 20%.

June 24, 2008 9:13 am

The reason why your solar collector is disconnected from the grid when the power fails is the power company doesn’t want your collector system to kill their workers.
As to your claim that we need even higher subsidies in order to make collector’s more economical, I call BS.
If collector’s can’t compete without subsidies, then they should be allowed to die.
REPLY: Along with Mark’s comment, I call double BS.
Subsidies aren’t the answer, becuase all they do is distrubute wealth. The answer is in more efficient technology. At 14% conversion ratio, teh cost of solar has to be subsidized now to make it affordable at all. More subsidies will only prolong, more subsidies. Market forces and economics will drive efficiency. -Anthony

June 24, 2008 3:04 pm

Several points:
Mike Borgelt: Nanosolar claims a two-month “energy-payback time” on its photovoltaics, and says for traditional silicon-wafer photovoltaics, the energy-payback time is three years.
Anthony: The conversion ratio (efficiency) has little to do with the need for subsidies. If the Nanosolar has 2/3 the conversion ratio of a crystalline silicon photovoltaic, but costs 1/5 as much, it is in much less need of subsidies than the silicon, even if it needs 50% more area.
The question of subsidies is a tricky one. You can make a case that they can jumpstart investment that is needed to bring the cost down so that eventually a technology can survive without subsidies. On the other hand, it can attract industrial “welfare queens”.

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