Inside a sprawling single-story office building in Bedford, Massachusetts, in a secret room known as the Growth Hall, the future of solar power is cooking at more than 2,500 °F. Behind closed doors and downturned blinds, custom-built ovens with ambitious names like “Fearless” and “Intrepid” are helping to perfect a new technique of making silicon wafers, the workhorse of today’s solar panels. If all goes well, the new method could cut the cost of solar power by more than 20% in the next few years.
“This humble wafer will allow solar to be as cheap as coal and will drastically change the way we consume energy,” says Frank van Mierlo, CEO of 1366 Technologies, the company behind the new method of wafer fabrication.
Efficiency, like football, can sometimes be a game of inches. As the article remarks, improvements of a tenth of a percent in efficiency have accumulated.
Within a decade, solar will have become decisively cheaper than coal. This means that the worst-case climate projections are off the table, for the simple reason that even with no treaties and no individual state actions to limit CO2 emissions, the emissions curve will bend down sharply and fairly soon. Money considerations will drive it, even if the true price of coal, including its climate costs, is not recognized.
Of course, the better policy remains to try and accelerate the deployment of wind and solar. Just because we have an airbag and will survive the crash, and just because a crash has become inevitable, doesn’t mean there’s no use hitting the brakes.