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Prospects for photovoltaics -

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Prospects for photovoltaics

Photovoltaics were developed in 1956 and have since dropped to one-hundredth of their price then.
Phil Livingston says major cost reductions are in train in solar thin-film technologies opening up
possibilities for a wide range of products and applications. The push now is to have photovoltaic
materials on the surfaces of most buildings, such as the tinting on windows, or the tiles on roofs.

Transcript

Robyn Williams: How are photovolaics going? Is it really promising to provide most of our energy
needs? Here's Phil Livingston in Perth.

Phil Livingston: I think it already has. Photovoltaics, first with Bell Labs in 1956, the cells
were essentially created, and since then the price of photovoltaics have dropped essentially
100-fold since the 1950s, so major cost reductions have been achieved. And just in Western
Australia here in Fremantle in the past year, the costs that people are paying after the subsidy
that the government has put in place, the industry has cut the price by 75%. So the cost is
definitely coming down and the government is helping with that, with subsidy...

Robyn Williams: You mean federal government?

Phil Livingston: Yes, exactly.

Robyn Williams: So you don't object to the $100,000 income cut off?

Phil Livingston: Not at all. I think that if that wasn't there then the industry would be going
haywire. What's it's really done, and I think the federal government did this by accident, is by
putting in that legislation they've essentially removed all of the high cost producers in solars
that were selling kits for $6,000 above the rebate, when the reality is right now people are
selling it for $1,500 above the rebate, and essentially the government cut the fat very quickly
with that. I don't think that was their intention but it's what happened, and now there are a lot
of lower cost producers in the marketplace and we're competing against each other, we're competing
for the common good, for reducing the price point of photovoltaic and getting it on roofs as
quickly as possible because that's what we need to do.

Robyn Williams: Talking about roofs, if you can make the tiles out of these materials and if you
can make the glass as well out of whatever photovoltaic technology you need to do its job, that
will reduce things even more, surely?

Phil Livingston: Oh definitely. Building integrated photovoltaic, as you just referenced, BIPV, is
definitely the way of moving forward. What we're trying to do at Sungrid is reduce the price point
of photovoltaic both from understanding the technology and how to reduce the integration time and
the labour component, but then also to incorporate building materials so that a photovoltaic panel
becomes a replacement for a shingle, or facades on skyscrapers; instead of using large windows that
need tint, using the photovoltaic as tint for the window and achieving that as well.

Robyn Williams: Is that technology really working now?

Phil Livingston: It's here, it's on the water right now and by November we'll be implementing it.

Robyn Williams: What kind of performance do you get, first of all out of the tiles, and then the
windows?

Phil Livingston: It depends on the technology. You can make a tile out of anything and it depends
on the solar technology that's being employed. But overall the efficiency is pretty similar. There
are certain engineering hurdles one needs to get over when using monocrystalline, which is a
certain type of material for building, as opposed to thin-film. And thin-film is less efficient on
a per-unit area but economically it's much more efficient as far as the amount of watts you get per
dollar invested. So we look at all of these technologies and we try, just from our perspective, to
reduce the dollars per watt. The economic efficiency, to us, is the most important number, not how
technically efficient it is in converting photons, or the sun's wavelength, into electrons.

Robyn Williams: I heard Ray Kurzweil predict that the acceleration that you described, the 100
times more cheap than the beginning, is going to accelerate even more. Can you see in 10 or 20
years time that solar will be sensationally cheaper?

Phil Livingston: Yes, I think that we're seeing it right now, I don't think you have to wait 10 or
15 years, I think you can wait five. There's an argument right now of whether solar thermal, these
power plants we just saw in this presentation, that are massive, whether those will be cheaper or
whether thin-film technologies which right now we're seeing major cost reductions, almost like
lithium batteries, we're seeing major cost reductions. And thin-film is getting much, much cheaper
in the next five years. So I don't think we have to wait too long now, the technology is definitely
coming to the fore. We have internet companies and people in the computer industry who are very
used to designing silicon based chips which are very similar to silicon cells, and all that
knowledge is now pouring over, and the industry is growing. It's going gangbusters. So it's a very
exciting time, and I think the only thing that's separating now photovoltaic from becoming as cheap
as or as free as the people from nuclear said in the 80s or the 70s...

Robyn Williams: 'Too cheap to meter'.

Phil Livingston: 'Too cheap to meter' is what they said. I think the only thing standing in the way
of that is finding ways of integrating it and riding that cost reduction from thin-film, because
we're really not far away.