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Can we afford solar energy?

10 years ago, cellphones and CD players could only be afforded by those with enough money to buy this expensive new technology. Today, everyone has a cellphone, and consumer electronics are cheaper and cheaper.

The same goes for solar energy: it is getting cheaper, and it will get cheaper still.

In 1959, solar modules were used for the first time on a space probe, the Explorer VI. Very useful things, these new-fangled solar panels, but....well....a bit steep. Solar power cost $100 per watt in 1971. Probably not much better in '59...

Today, the price sits at about R9/Watt (production), +-R14 (wholesale), but is expected to fall significantly by 2015.

Early solar panels on the Explorer VI ProbeOn average, polycrystalline solar panels are still very expensive and locally can can cost anywhere from R25/Watt and up. And the promise of a locally-developed-South-African-low-cost-energy-solar-panel-breakthrough-revolution-with-power-cheaper-than-R8-a-watt so far remains a pipe dream.

The last report of a German company buying the rights, followed by a deafening silence seems to confirm this. Pity.

Add to this the price tag on the balance-of-system elements of a home solar power system (controllers, wiring, batteries, inverters, etc), and starting to think of switching to even a little bit of solar power becomes a big...turn-off.

Light at the end of the tunnel

This all said, even a solar power system used just for backup lighting provides many attractive advantages. Many feel that investing in a solar power system is one way to break free from an unreliable (and increasingly expensive) power company.

Sometimes solar is the only solution to power problems - in Zimbabwe and similar countries, having a solar panel, a car battery and Nokia chargers means you have a job for which there is a constant demand.

And for farmers, regularly buying solar panels and batteries is a part of life.

With carefully bought and maintained components, an entire solar power system can be paid off within a decade - this is a fact. And the time to pay off this system will get shorter as panels get cheaper and grid-bought electricity gets more expensive.