In 2007 there was a breakthrough in the solar industry when the cost of solar energy hit an all-time low of $ 1 per watt, making it a cheaper option than coal. In 2008, wind power picked up the pace and broke the $ 1 / watt mark as well. Now in 2009, solar sets the bar again and crashes the $ 1 / w mark to come out at $ 0.98 / w. First Solar, the company to produce a thin-film photovoltaic solar panel that will generate power for under $ 1 / w, is getting media coverage all over the place for making this stone. Still to come in 2009, First Solar claims that its annual capacity will double to more than a gigawatt, which is equivalent to what the average nuclear plant produces.
Since its inception in 2004, First Solar's manufacturing costs have decreased from over $ 3 / w to today's breakthrough $ 0.98 / w. The company credits forward-thinking government programs for their progress and boasts that their modules leave the smallest carbon footprint of all current photovoltaic technologies. They're also the only company in the industry to offer a pre-funded, end-of-life collection and recycling program, and already recycle over 90% of every used and collected module into new products.
While this sounds all well and good for us solar enthusiasts now, there are some who are concerned about a lack of long-term solar solutions: megawatts and gigawatts are sufficient in the short-term, but in terms of terawatts for larger uses of solar energy, companies like First Solar may hit a wall. Also, with this rush for solar power under $ 1 per watt, as much as 10-15% of First Solar's orders might default as potential solar customers are affected by the current credit crisis. Also, in order for solar to compete with conventional power sources manufacturing costs need to get down to $ 0.65 – $ 070 / w, and installation costs to $ 1 / w. First Solar intends to reach these numbers by 2012.
It seems that overall, the glaring question remains which any solar manufacturer would be capable of the number of orders that would inevitably follow if they asserted such a competitive cost. Then it's a matter of attaining enough raw materials to meet increased demand. That will have to come in time, though, as it will take federal funding to research inexpensive and eco-friendly alternatives to silicon.