Solar Energy Mini-Series: The Silicon Photovoltaic Roadmap
Richard Swanson, SunPower Corp.
Monday, November 14, 2011 | 04:15 PM - 05:15 PM | NVIDIA Auditorium, Jen-Hsun Huang Engineering Center | Free and Open to All
SunPower Founder: Solar’s Learning Curve Paves Way to Competitive Costs
By Mark Golden
Solar power, despite critiques that it is too expensive to significantly contribute to a green future, will be cost competitive without government subsidies in just a few years, according to a pioneer of both the solar industry and research.
The price of generating solar power in some cases is already on par with electricity generated by burning fossil fuels, according to Richard Swanson, who was an electrical engineering professor at Stanford University for 16 years before he left to found SunPower in 1991. Large photovoltaic (PV) power plants, like the one SunPower is building to supply PG&E, are already cost competitive, as are home rooftop panels in Hawaii and several European countries.
“We’re at the precipice, man,” Swanson enthused. “PV is basically right there, after all these years of hard work.”
However, in about five years many such subsidies are set to expire, and solar increasingly will have to make it on its own. Swanson, who remains a consulting professor at Stanford, is confident it will.
“It’s very obvious that you’re going to have a $1.12 panel by 2016, which is all that’s needed to make power in California without subsidies,” he said. “It’s very doable. It will happen.”
Swanson is not so confident that the solar industry can reach the Department of Energy’s target of $0.50-per-watt panels by 2017 to become the world’s cheapest source of electricity. “You’re just not going to march down that low that fast. It will require a major breakthrough,” he said. “And that’s what they’re trying to do with the program – to precipitate a major breakthrough.”
Thinner silicon wafers and better efficiency in converting sunlight into electricity will help drive panel prices even lower, but the costs of installation and other system parts, like wiring and inverters, must fall as well. Meanwhile, the number of panels installed this year slowed greatly from the torrid pace of 2010. Swanson expects total installations to grow about 20% annually, which means panel prices will not drop as much year to year.
Still, he expects solar power to play a major role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century. “I think we’ll be at 40% wind, 40% PV and 20% natural gas by 2050.”
Dr. Richard Swanson was born in Davenport, Iowa in 1945. He received his BSEE and MSEE from Ohio State University in 1969 and the PhD in Electrical Engineering from Sanford University in 1975. After completing his PhD, Richard joined the Electrical Engineering faculty at Stanford. His research investigated the semiconductor properties of silicon relevant for better understanding the operation of silicon solar cells. These studies have helped pave the way for steady improvement in silicon solar cell performance. In 1991 Richard resigned from his faculty position to devote full time to SunPower Corporation, a company he founded to develop and commercialize cost-effective photovoltaic power systems. Today, SunPower produces the highest performance photovoltaic panels available.
Richard has received widespread recognition for his work. In 2002, he was awarded the William R. Cherry award by the IEEE for outstanding contributions to the photovoltaic field, and in 2006 the Becquerel Prize in Photovoltaics from the European Communities. He was elected a Fellow of the IEEE in 2008 and a member of the National Academy of Engineering in 2009. He received the 2009 Economist Magazine Energy Innovator Award. In 2010 he was awarded the IEEE Jin-ichi Nishizawa Medal for the conception and commercialization of high-efficiency point-contact solar cell technology, and in 2011 the Karl Boer Solar Energy Medal of Merit Award.