Affordable Solar Energy: Challenges and Opportunities



Friday, April1, 2005, 3:30 PM

Room 825 SWM Building

Jessika Trancik

Earth Institute Fellow

Earth Engineering Center

Columbia University

The greatest barrier to the growth of solar energy use is the technology’s comparatively high cost. However, recent scientific advancements in thin-film photovoltaic cells are promising. I will review the current technological and economic state of photovoltaics, and present the results of recent nanoscience and energy systems research on ways achieve cost reductions in solar electricity.

New technologies are introduced to the market at a price that will decrease dramatically as their cumulative production grows – due to firm-based and sector-based learning, and economies of scale. Because of the high initial price, new technologies often struggle to establish themselves in a competitive market. This is especially true for new energy technologies, where the final product purchased is identical regardless of the primary energy source used. The chance of success of new technologies can be increased by minimizing the starting costs through subtle or drastic design changes; and supporting progress along an experience curve through subsidies and other market transformation initiatives.

Solar energy has benefited from recent advancements in nanotechnology. Several new thin-film technologies show promise for significantly reduced starting costs. I will review these developments and discuss results of research on one of these technologies: the dye-sensitized solar cell.

I will also present an analysis, based on different technology choices and growth scenarios, of the estimated total investment needed to reach a point where photovoltaics are cost-competitive. An experience curve analysis shows that this investment is highly dependent on the starting costs of a technology, and that current lowest cost solar modules are not necessarily the most cost-effective in the long-term. In conclusion, I will briefly discuss policy implications.

Bio: Jessika Trancik has a B.S. in Materials Science and Engineering from Cornell University and a Ph.D. in Materials Science from the University of Oxford . Her research focuses on photovoltaics and energy systems for sustainable development. She is currently an Earth Institute Fellow at Columbia University , where she is working on improving the efficiencies of low-cost photovoltaic cells using the tools of nanoscience; and on energy systems research to understand the relationship between technology choice and opportunities for growth in photovoltaics.