- Chelsea Green Publishing - http://www.chelseagreen.com/blogs -

Solar power too cheap to meter? Well, not quite, but we can dream!

Our friends at Le Kos du Jour [1] have put this one on our radar screen: a newish solar panel company is currently producing panels that have an installed cost-per-watt of electricity the same as from building a new coal-powered facility. Daily Kos‘s source of the New York Times reports that

Nanosolar’s founder and chief executive, Martin Roscheisen, claims to be the first solar panel manufacturer to be able to profitably sell solar panels for less than $1 a watt. That is the price at which solar energy becomes less expensive than coal.

“With a $1-per-watt panel,” he said, “it is possible to build $2-per-watt systems.”

According to the Energy Department, building a new coal plant costs about $2.1 a watt, plus the cost of fuel and emissions, he said.

My, oh my. What that means is that the movement to establish a moratorium on all new coal-powered electricity plants [2] has one more debating point on its side. (More [3] on the moratorium, and more [4], and more [5], and cetera [6].)

And now for a little diatribe.

This winning debating point does have one drawback: Nanosolar is one company with newly opened manufacturing facilities, and demand for their panels totally outstrips their ability to produce. According to the NYT, Nanosolar is already sold out on their next 18 months of production. Their cheapest-on-the-block solar panels are built using numerous patent-protected proprietary techniques. On the one hand is the old argument that the creative engineering folks behind this innovation wouldn’t have come up with it in the first place if they didn’t think they’d have patent protection that allows them to make a bajillion dollars with their technological monopoly. (Of course, that old argument leaks like a sieve; consider the millions and millions of hours of creative labor that have gone into development of open-source software [7].) Even assuming that’s true in this case, what do we do with the other hand: the desperate need by society at large to have this kind of technology (assuming it’s as good as advertised) available on a wider scale than one startup company is capable of providing? During WW2, the government saw fit to ration food and fuel and to implement price caps throughout the economy. Price controls were used during the Vietnam War as well. Businesses providing stuff for the war effort were guaranteed enough payment for their products to cover their costs plus a reasonable bit of profit, without letting them use their lottery-luck position on the supply side of the economy to drain taxpayers dry. And of course there’s always the example of the draft. Global warming is as threatening in its own ways as political domination by an invading army. “Free” (never was nor will be such a thing) market principles are fine enough under normal circumstances, but how bad does global warming have to get before we come to a collective decision that those with clever energy ideas are obligated to share them openly–with guarantees of reasonable payment for their cleverness, but, sorry folks, no lottery payouts? When you’re on a sinking ship and someone quickly invents a new life raft using deck chairs, duct tape, and a secret ingredient, nobody would seriously consider sitting around and negotiating with the inventor over the cost of getting in the raft. You just get yer rear end in it, no questions asked. After everyone is back safe on land, the survivors will surely thank the inventor, take him out to dinner, present him with a plaque, and all sorts of fine and dandy things like that. And that’s the question: just how fast is our ship sinking? (To be clear, this is not intended as just a bunch of rhetorical questions. I am not advocating that Nanosolar be legally forced to open up its patented technological tool chest to the competition. I am advocating that that possibility be considered, not just for Nanosolar, but for any and all patents that have an ability to affect large scale social problems.)