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Selling a Solar-Cell Future

The United States Energy Department recently came up with a bright idea: Use derelict pieces of polluted industrial land called brownfields to demonstrate a use for solar-generated electricity.

Juice flowing from solar cells erected on the sites would go to small-scale needs, such as lighting a city park, or it could be sold to the local utility.

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Not surprisingly, the idea is dubbed "brightfields." But it's not likely to light up the future of solar technology - not yet. Finding land for solar panels does not strike at the heart of the technology's problem.

While the potential of solar power as a nonpolluting, renewable source of electricity has been touted for decades, it is still rarely used in homes or offices.

Today's state-of-the-art photovoltaic cells are still too inefficient in converting sunlight into electricity to compete on price in most electricity markets.

Electricity generated by even mass-produced cells costs a lot more per kilowatt-hour than electricity from conventional sources - coal-fired plants, for example.

But research for greater efficiency and mass production of cells are narrowing the cost gap. Solar-generated electricity is now about 20 cents a kwh compared to $1 two decades ago.

Governments abroad, pushed to avoid environmental problems associated with coal-burning or nuclear power, are hastening the marketability of solar. Japan and parts of Europe are subsidizing solar use, feeding the electricity into national power grids.

Official US involvement has been small by comparison. So far Chicago is the only city clearly aboard the "brightfields" experiment, though other cities are interested.

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The Sacramento Municipal Utility District in California has installed photovoltaic panels on the roofs of more than 450 customers. These "PV Pioneers" pay an additional monthly fee to participate in this "green" program. The power from their rooftop panels goes into the local grid.

Meanwhile, sales by the solar-energy industry are growing at a yearly rate of 20 to 25 percent. Energy giants such as British Petroleum-Amoco are big investors in solar technology.

Such "renewable" energy use is still small compared to interest in it. But solar power is no longer an idea stuck in the lab.

Solar-generated electricity - along with its renewable cousin, wind-power - is slowly making its way from neat idea to marketable product.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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