Solar Hampered By Silicon Shortage?


An article on Wired News makes the claim that a shortage of silicon might be getting in the way of a boom in the use of solar energy.

As demand for clean energy continues to grow, the solar industry forecasts millions of photovoltaic systems will dot the landscape by the end of the decade. However, a severe shortage of the silicon used in the systems threatens to dampen solar's growth.

According to a recent solar-energy report from the nonprofit Energy Foundation, the U.S. solar industry could grow by more than $6 billion per year if the technology becomes cost-competitive with electricity from fossil-fuel sources.

(Link in original text.)

That's a mighty big "if" in that last sentence. A lot of things might grow if the underlying technology suddently became easy and cheap to produce.

Despite the repeated calls for government action (new programs, tax breaks, rebates, etc.) by some of the interviewees, industry seems to be doing exactly what one should expect:

Homan said that from 2000 to 2004, silicon manufacturers could not justify capital investments because the price for their products in the solar industry had dropped to less than $30 per kilogram, or below many companies' costs. Demand for silicon from semiconductor manufacturers and the solar industry has increased sharply since then, and the price has nearly doubled, Homan said.

In the short run (before new plants could come online), I would think a sudden spike in demand for silicon as would be occasioned by a new government policy would only exacerbate the problem. Since silicon makes up less of the production costs of a microchip, chip makers' demand are likely to be more inelastic than that of the solar power technology companies.


The problem with high purity silicon is one may have a more profound impact than immediately apparent. There are several problems maturing like increasing chronic shortages of water in the Middle East and peak demand power shortages. All combined these problems could easily demand PV deployment in the range of 500 times their current annual volumes to adequately address. Since high purity silicon shortages cause price spikes even at current production volumes if basically prevents PV use to solve these emerging problems which need hundreds of times more. We at XDOBS have tried to do our part by inventing products like A2WH that harvests water from air using Solar Thermal heat energy. We anticipated the silicon shortage impact on PV so we designed specifically use bulk products like Aluminum. If global warming does trigger the number of droughts world wide that experts are predicting it will take all of our production plus any that can be produced by the PV people and even then it may not be enough to avoid wide spread human suffering. The Water war fears have reached a level where even highly placed UN people are talking about it and nobody is putting good solutions on the table. It is in the best interest of the USA to deploy technology as rapidly as possible to eliminate the war risk factors wherever possible and PV can play a key part in that deployment but only if the prices can come down with massively larger deployment.

On one side I hope the Silicon refinery people like Homan never do figure out how to produce more at a lower price and my understanding is that it is a pretty significant hurdle due to the purity requirements. This obviously keeps PV from being able to effectively compete in our markets but on the other hand the world is poised with a set of maturing problems that could drive a renaissance in renewable energy that would result in dramatic reductions of greenhouse gas emissions and we will need the PV guys at full stride to help make this happen.


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This page contains a single entry by published on March 28, 2005 4:55 PM.

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