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The chart at the left shows the yearly average cost of electricity for 2015 by consumer group per the EIA (the US Energy Information Administration). Electricity prices vary by location due to type of power plants, cost of fuels, fuel transportation costs and state pricing regulations. In 2014 the US average residential household used 911 kWh per month and the average monthly electricity bill was $114 before taxes and fees.
As shown in the chart at the left, photovoltaic (PV) solar cell prices have come down by a factor of 100 over the last 38 years; and down by a factor of 25 over the last 15 years. Since costs after installation are minimal for solar electricity, the relevant costs are the purchase price, installation costs, and the cost of land (capital costs). In the southwest, installed residential solar prices are competitive with residential electricity prices after incentives. As can be seen from the graph at the left, recent solar module prices have experienced a dramatic price reduction. The main reason crystalline silicon module prices dropped so much was because the price of the raw material polysilicon, which makes up a very significant part of the total cost, dropped so tremendously. In addition to the polysilicon issue, the decline is also being driven by a) the increasing efficiency of solar cells (ratio of electrical energy produced to sunshine energy) b) dramatic manufacturing technology improvements, c) economies of scale and d) intense competition which lead to module oversupply.
In 2009 the California Energy Commission (CEC) rejected a contract for a new peaker in San Diego in favor of a PV solar system. The following table shows the Levelized Cost Of Energy (LCOE) for various sources of electricity. Note: CCS stands for Carbon Control and Storage (Sequestration) in a remote underground location. Nuclear has many sideline issues besides cost and therefore very few new nuclear facilities are expected.
When we say that PV will eventually be at parity with natural gas and coal, that does not mean there will not be any coal or natural gas generators thereafter. In addition, more than 20% of solar and wind would require major investments in transmission lines. Once installed, PV systems need very little maintenance so that the total lifetime cost is mostly just the initial price of the equipment and land. As shown in the learning curve chart above, cadmium telluride thin film panels are inherently cheaper to make than crystalline panels.
However, the extreme polysilicone price decline is most likely behind us and future price reductions will probably be more modest. A roof top solar system has no moving parts, so it has a long expected lifetime exceeding 25 years (used in this example).
Land related costs which depend on the number of panels, site preparation and security protection.
The value of the electricity produced over the total life cycle of the system is calculated by estimating the initial annual production, called Peak Capacity, and then discounting it for future years based on previously observed annual degradation rates for the particular technology of the site. Prices are higher for residential and commercial customers than industrial customers because it costs more to distribute the electricity and step the voltages down.
The site consists of ten generators, and all ten can be on the grid within 10 minutes generating 450 MW of power.


These are intermediate size plants that are normally turned off at night but follow the increasing electrical load as the day progresses.
These are nuclear and coal type plants that are very efficient but can take many hours or even days, in the case of nuclear, to come up to speed and to shut down. The total US electricity market in 2014 was 4,093 million kilo-watt hours (m-kWh) according to US EIA. Unless there are unusual circumstances, there probably will be no more peakers approved in California. And, as mentioned previously, it is highly unlikely that any new peaker gas systems will be installed anywhere in the US.
Geothermal, hydro-electric, and biomass are not mainstream electrical production facilities, a few here and there. Because the sun shines only during daylight hours, and wind is most prevalent at night, both are variable. Not only are transmission lines expensive, but they are hard to permit because of the NIMBY (not-in-my-back-yard) factor.
However inverters (which convert the panel DC current into AC) have an expected lifetime of 10 to 15 years. Actual costs will depend on the exact location of the home, the angle to the sun (north-south vs.
The LCOE approach allows different technologies to be compared, not only solar approaches, but fossil fuels and nuclear as well. Industrial customers use more and can take their electricity at higher voltages so it does not need to be stepped down.
Utilities on the other hand typically install systems in the 100 mega-watt or greater range.
Polysilicon suppliers made a lot of money and added tons of capacity so that there was a huge polysilicon capacity oversupply by 2010. Each generator consists of a converted GE Boeing 747 jet engine powered with natural gas which can be turned on with a click of a mouse and will generate 45 MW of power.
These are generally combined-cycle plants (natural gas with a steam turbine) that are expensive but easy to turn on and off.
They are the backbone of the electrical industry and will remain so for the foreseeable future. It is the total life cycle cost of electricity for a given technology divided by the total life cycle electricity produced, expressed as cents per kilo-watt hour.
Therefore, as far as new electrical facilities are concerned, natural gas without CSS, wind, and solar will be the main new contributors.
Transmission lines also require three to four years to build, versus solar or wind plants which can be easily built in two years.
Ken Zweibel of George Washington University says that is not the correct way to evaluate long life assets like PV systems, nuclear plants, or other large long lasting utilities. The chart at the left uses a weighted average (weighted by annual output performance) for the cost for the current year plus all previous years for each data point.
The Total Life Cycle Cost is the present value of all the components of cost over the useful life of the installation minus the depreciation tax benefit and residual value.


The first-year energy production of the system is expressed in kilowatt hours generated per kilowatt of peak capacity. Peakers are rather small plants, ranging from 50 MW to 500 MW in size, normally about 100 MW. PV solar is also cheaper than coal with CCS and it is unlikely that any new coal plants will be built in the US. Wind is somewhat limited as an average of 20 miles per hour (mph) is needed to be economically feasible. Once the initial cost of the system is paid for (assumed to be 20 years) the cost of running a PV system is almost zero, whereas for coal and other fossil fuels there is the cost of fuel each and every year. Most analysts believe First Solar, the leader in cadmium telluride, will continue to drive costs down. We assume no other maintenance costs as the panels are usually warranted for 25 years with a degradation clause. For an accurate estimate, please contact a local solar installation contractor and your tax accountant. The Total Lifetime Energy Production is all the useful energy produced by the installation over its total life. There continues to be a major overhang of polysilicon supply which is expected to continue for a few more years.
In addition, costs for fossil fuels may creep up due to raw material costs, shipping costs, and possibly carbon dioxide taxes.
The chart illustrates that the two technologies are on distinctly different curves, not dependent on time but on volume. They are normally single-cycle natural gas generators, meaning no boiling water; the burning natural gas directly fuels the turbine. So a PV system after 50 years will still produce electricity at 75% of its original performance. Although crystalline silicone is inherently more expensive, its production volume is much, much larger than cadmium telluride. 50 years is perhaps a better time frame over which to evaluate the cost of this type of asset. They are very inefficient and expensive to run, but are great sources of electricity when utilities are on the verge of rolling blackouts. They are expected to slow down a bit, but will continue to decline from the levels used in the LCOE calculations above. Just looking at the curves, one would expect crystalline silicone to equal cadmium telluride in the near future.



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