Solar power will someday compete efficiently with fossil fuels, according to Dr. Miguel Contreras, a lead engineer with the Golden-based National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).
A native of Santiago, Chile, Contreras, 52, and his team of scientists, engineers and technicians at NREL’s National Center for Photovoltaics (NCPV) have produced and continue to refine a thin-film solar cell that maximizes efficient use of photovoltaics –– generating electricity from sunlight.
Solar energy is the most abundant energy source says Contreras, who helps oversee a $2 million research budget. Thanks to public-private partnerships and research investments he hopes to make solar power cost-effective and truly competitive with traditional energy sources within 10 years. With degrees in electrical engineering, Contreras earned his doctorate in materials science from Colorado School of Mines in 1996. Since then he has produced several world-record energy conversion efficiencies and holds six U.S. patents based on his research on thin-film photovoltaic materials or PV industry, for short.
Solar energy panel arrays can be found throughout Colorado including a system housed at an 82-acre site in Colorado’s San Luis Valley home to the Alamosa Photovoltaic Plant, one of the nation’s largest PV power plants. Meanwhile, giant IMAX-sized solar panels harness sun power as part of the SolarTAC facility located on 74 acres of land in Aurora.
“There are some additional technical and cost issues that need to be solved before both the modules and PV systems can compete with fossil fuels,” explains Contreras, who has spent more than 20 years on solar research. Technical progress continues to drive down costs.
“Not counting installation,” he said, “the cost of solar energy has dropped from $20 a watt in 1980 to $3 a watt today.”
In 2008 Contreras made headlines in the mainstream media with record-breaking thin film solar cell efficiencies of 20 percent. Eventually, he hopes to make solar energy competitive with fossil fuels, a long-range goal likened to the effort and funding aimed at the moon shot goal of the 1960s space race. It’s all part of the Department of Energy’s “SunShot” initiative with a goal to reduce the total costs of solar energy systems by about 75 percent by 2020.
It’s a competitive race with Europe. About 18 months ago, Contreras said, German scientists set a new efficiencies world-record. As his team approaches the “theoretical maximum efficiency” of 30 percent, setting a world-record solar cell will become more challenging.
“Our work for the next three to five years will focus on bringing the cost of PV power down toward parity with coal and natural gas. The goal of $1 per watt for photovoltaic has been set by the SunShot Initiative.”