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Will solar power ever be as cheap as coal?

Some predict that within five years, it could rival fossil-fuel energy.

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Wafer handlers: Senior photovoltaic engineer Adam Lorenz works on some solar wafers. The company he works for, 1366 Technologies, aims to convert sunshine into power as cheaply as coal-burning power plants do.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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“Solar power is the energy of the future – and always will be.”

That tired joke, which has dogged solar-generated electricity for decades due to its high cost, could be retired far sooner than many think.

While solar contributes less than 1 percent of the energy generated in the United States today, its costs are turning sharply downward.

Whether using mirrors that focus desert sunlight to harvest heat and spin turbines or rooftop photovoltaic panels that turn sunshine directly into current, solar is on track to deliver electricity to residential users at a cost on par with natural gas and perhaps even coal within the next four to seven years, industry experts say.

“We’re confident that we’re not that far away from a tipping point where energy from solar will be competitive with fossil fuels,” said Ray Kurzweil, a National Academy of Engineers panel member after the panel reported on the future of solar power in February. “I personally believe that we’re within five years of that tipping point.”

To do that, however, the cost of electricity produced by rooftop solar panels, for instance, will need to fall by half – from about 32 cents per kilowatt hour (kwh) today, including subsidies, to about 15 cents per kwh by 2012, according to a new report by FBR Capital Markets, an investment bank, and market researcher Solarbuzz.

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