When Solar 'Crossover' Hits, the World Will Quake

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BOSTON (TheStreet) -- The most important financial event of this decade will be called "crossover." That's the point at which solar energy becomes cheaper than fossil fuel energy.

Crossover will transform energy economics. It puts a thumb down on energy prices. When costs for exploiting a fuel source go above the crossover price, that fuel source becomes uneconomic, as solar cell production scales to meet it.

Crossover happens in different places, in different ways, partly because the economics of solar and fossil fuel energy are different:

  • With solar, you buy and install a panel. That's your capital investment. That panel produces energy over some useful life. Once you have accounted for your capital costs, any additional energy becomes free if you maintain the panel and it keeps working.
  • With fossil fuels, you first buy and install systems for burning fuel, then buy fuel. The first cost is capitalized (and relatively minor), the second is expensed (and subject to change).

When critics charge that solar is "uneconomic," what they mean is that the capital cost of the panel, spread over its useful life, won't produce as much energy as fossil fuels would at current prices. But critics can't assure current prices. Fuel prices fluctuate.

Solar panels installed last year continue to produce this year. The amortized cost of that power may fall below current fuel prices, or may sit above them. Subsidies are used to lower the effective cost of solar capital, but once that panel is installed it's going to produce whether or not the subsidy remains in place.

Right now, it is assumed that the cost of panels, amortized over their life, will produce electricity at a net cost higher than juice bought from the grid. That's a big assumption, but it's what the market thinks. In other words, solar can't exist without subsidies.

This subsidy battle has moved to states and localities. States and localities with subsidy programs are good markets for solar panel makers. Until crossover, it's this "buy side" of the market that has the profit -- demand has to be pulled when your costs exceed the competition's. The hope of bulls in companies like First Solar is that subsidies can assure sales until crossover is achieved.

What can upset the balance is new technology that draws power from light outside the visible spectrum, a fuel source now being wasted. The problem is always moving new technology into production.

So the big news today comes from a very small company called NatCore, based in Red Bank, N.J., and traded in Toronto under the symbol NXT.

NatCore calls its technology "black silicon" and deploys it through a Liquid Phase Deposition (LPD) process that may be compatible with current thin-film manufacturing. It's now testing this compatibility with five companies, two in North America, two in China and one in Europe.

Black silicon brings yields on solar systems from 17% to 30% by absorbing all light spectrum into a cell, using carbon nanotubes. It was created by Andrew Barron of Rice University, who serves as a consultant to the company.

My point today is not that you should sell the cat and buy NatCore. There are, in fact, dozens of small companies like NatCore, at various stages in the research, discovery and commercialization process. NatCore, in fact, might find itself highly dependent on the work of high school students like Neerja Aggarwal, an intern at Baron's lab, developing ways to mass-produce nanotubes efficiently.

My point is that not all these efforts are doomed to failure, that one, or more, will succeed in transforming solar economics. GE and the Department of Energy expect crossover with fossil fuels to occur in 2015 or 2016, depending on energy prices and changing technology.

Many believe that solar crossover with nuclear happened two years ago. Seen many new nuclear plants?

This industry is not blowing smoke. Crossover is coming. Be aware of that as you consider all your energy investments -- in fact, all your investments. Because once crossover happens, we go from an age of scarcity to one of abundance, and everything changes.

Disclosure: The writer owns no stocks in the companies mentioned (but he did graduate from Rice University in 1977).

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