Street Lamps

Amateur astronomers complain of light pollution and can’t properly observe celestial bodies. Others complain streets and sidewalks are poorly lit, therefore unsafe.

I sometimes wonder whether we need to spend so much energy on lighting streets all night. While in Ukraine this summer, the lack of street lamps in urban residential areas was remarkable. Felt as if I was in the country, walking from building to building in the dark.

What if we lowered the power requirements? This street lamp, powered by solar and wind, outside the Panasonic Center in Tokyo presents a simple solution.

According a story on Reuters earlier today, prices for solar panels are expected to drop:

The solar power sector will produce an over supply of solar panels in 2009, said Zhengrong Shi, chief executive of the world’s biggest module manufacturer Suntech (STP.N: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz).

“We expect definitely an over supply of modules next year,” he told Reuters in an interview, adding Suntech expected its euro-denominated prices to fall by 10-15 percent next year, by 25-30 percent in dollars, compared to the third quarter of 2008.

“The financial crisis has accelerated that situation,” Shi said. The entire sector could halve the cost of solar power before 2012, he added, assuming companies cooperated on cutting prices across the supply chain.

Low-carbon solar photovolataic (PV) power is much more expensive than fossil fuel alternatives and provides a tiny fraction of the world’s electricity. The sector is under pressure to cut costs to prove it can scale up.

“Definitely it’s do-able,” Shi said, referring to a goal of cutting the cost of solar-powered electricity before 2012 to about 16 euro cents per kilowatt hour, compared to a guaranteed solar power price in much of Europe now of about 30 cents.

“We can’t do it on our own. The whole industry has to contribute, can achieve it. Otherwise the market will be limited, governments will get impatient.”

Suntech makes solar panels from highly purified silicon. A generally less efficient but cheaper solar PV alternative is called thin film, made from dyes and other materials, and that sector is cutting prices, too.

“We haven’t cut prices of our solar panels as they are already priced below the market but others have been lowering their prices visibly over the last months,” said Mike Ahearn, chief executive of First Solar (FSLR.O: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz), a thin-film manufacturer.

Improving infrastructure and using clean energy simultaneously is something we might see after Mr. Obama takes office in January. Why not street lamps? There’s probably more than 15 million of those in the U.S. alone. They’re being deployed in China now.

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