Cheap Solar Power: Has The Dream Come True?

Has an 80-year-old scientist in Athol, Mass., found the key to economical solar energy? Alvin M. Marks has patented a process that he claims is 80% efficient at converting sunlight into electricity. That's so much better than anything else around--as much as a fourfold increase--that many skeptics dismiss Marks out of hand. But not the Electric Power Research Institute, the electric industry's research arm. EPRI is backing Marks with $100,000.

The idea stems from Marks' early, and underfunded, work on Lumeloid--a thin, polarizing film covered with tiny molecular "antennas" that absorb sunlight and produce an electric current. Marks claims that a two-layer stack of his transparent material, with the layers oriented at right angles to each other, is so efficient that capital and production costs come to only 1~ per kilowatt hour. That's about a fifth of current typical costs with fossil fuels. And other photovoltaic systems now in use are lucky to achieve 10% efficiency and costs of 25~ per kilowatt hour. While Lumeloid's efficiency seems promising, skeptics warn that the material needs to prove itself in real-world, commercial installations.

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