You won't see the next big innovation in solar technology splashed across the front page of The New York Times, because it's going to be boring. It won't be news you want to forward to your friends. It won't change the way you think about the world. It’s just going to make solar panels cheaper.
Climate Progress reports that the latest, greatest breakthrough has, in fact, already happened. It does have a cool name—the optical cavity furnace—that makes it sound like solar panels might be going to the eye doctor and the dentist at the same time. Here’s the big breakthrough: the furnace “can heat silicon wafers used in solar cell production much more precisely and uniformly than previous forms of solar cell manufacture. The resulting solar cells are stronger, more efficient, and have fewer impurities,” according to the report. Sounds like a snooze, huh?
Yet this technology could slash the production costs of solar panels by 75 percent. One of the most amazing and unexpected aspects of solar technology is that it has conformed to a principle similar to Moore’s law, which describes the development of computer hardware—it keeps getting exponentially cheaper. Last March, Scientific American analyzed trends in solar prices to show that the same principle applies to solar power.
The strength of many new solar companies rests on the promise of cost-cutting technology. That’s why Solyndra was created. It’s also why the company closed: other entrepreneurs had bet on strategies that cut costs further than Solyndra’s technology did. The fight over the best way to stamp out a solar wafer isn’t over yet, and more companies will open and close. But the staple technology—the solar panel—won’t change much from a consumer’s perspective. Prospective solar panel owners, whether homeowners or utility-scale project financiers, will simply start paying less for a more efficient product. In fact, since the cost of solar panels has shrunk as a proportion of the total cost of a solar system, innovators are looking to cut costs elsewhere—on mounting systems, for instance. (Needless to say, a change in the way solar panels are mounted probably isn’t going to make big news either.)
What this means, though, is that we already have the technology to start switching over more of the country’s energy generation to renewable sources. As the Rocky Mountain Institute argues in Reinventing Fire, no new scientific breakthroughs are necessary for the country to wean itself off coal and oil by 2050. There’s room for what Climate Progress calls “process innovation,” tweaks here and there. But the work of developing practical solar technology has already been done. Now, the trickier problem is figuring out how to pay to spread it everywhere.