With solar power, thin is in

Thin film photovoltaic panels are barely visible on the roof of a newly constructed dental office in Grand Junction. Improving thin film technology offers advantages, as well, including lower cost and greater flexibility (Business Times photo by Mike Moran)

It’s less expensive than the traditional material used in solar panels. It’s more flexible. It’s less noticeable, too.

That three-fold combination makes thin film photovoltaic technology an increasingly popular item in the solar energy business.

“It tends to be less prominent,” says Lou Villaire, who works in the sales and design department of Atlasta Solar in Grand Junction.

Thin film is just that —thin — and can meld into the appearance of a roof in a way that traditional silicon solar panels can’t. In fact, it can be easy to drive by the panels without noticing them. They’re featured on a new dental office at Patterson and 25 1/2 roads in Grand Junction as well on several other businesses in the Grand Valley.

New and improved versions of the product are also in the works. “Dow Corning manufactures a shingle with this technology,” Villaire says.

As with most technological advances, the new products are costly. For solar power to be viable in the long-run, such products must be produced in large enough quantities to make costs reasonable. Demand, of course, helps dictate production.

“The challenge is to continue to push costs down,” Villaire says. Otherwise, solar can’t viably compete with such traditional energy sources as oil, natural gas or coal. “As this become available to more people, you run into fewer people who have the discretionary income to do this.”

For the time being, subsidies and tax breaks continue to help businesses subsidize the purchase of solar systems. A federal tax credit of 30 percent for a solar purchase remains in place until 2016.

However, incentives offered by the State of Colorado and Xcel Energy are dwindling. Colorado is following the same pattern that occurred in California and Japan, where hefty subsidies were scaled back over time. There are fewer upfront subsidies and more reward after systems are operating. That’s when utilities buy the power that’s unused by the owner of a solar-powered system. Xcel is required to purchase excess power from customers, but is now doing so at a lower rate than it did a year ago.

Incentives also are offered overseas and are a reason China now produces more solar panels than any other country. The Chinese government helps bankroll the industry and the country has low-cost labor, Villaire says. It also has the largest supply of silicon, which is used in most solar panels.

The raw costs of traditional solar equipment have dropped — as much as 50 percent in the past year, Villaire says. One reason is the use of micro-converters, which are better connected to the electricity grid and are smaller and less expensive than their counterparts of a few years ago, he adds.

Declines in costs could be a promising trend in an industry that might have to rely more on the open market and less on subsidies and tax breaks in the next decade.