A recent New York Times article describes some of the solar power work going on in Silicon Valley:
Can Silicon Valley become a world leader in cheap and ubiquitous solar panels for the masses? Given the valley's tremendous success in recent years with such down-to-earth products as search engines and music players, tackling solar power might seem improbable. Yet some of the valley's best brains are captivated by the challenge, and they hope to put the development of solar technologies onto a faster track.
The valley is amazing. On a related note...
The Other Unsolved Solar Panel Problem
Besides efficiency and price, there's one additional problem with solar panels that absolutely needs to be solved before they're used in any appreciable quantity: I'm talking about the ugliness. Solar panels are simply too ugly to install on someone's home. The current models look all the world like a billboard blew over in a storm and landed on the roof. That's just not good.
Yeah, I know there are photovoltaic "shingles" available, but those are more expensive, and hand wiring each shingle is awkward and unreliable.
I think the solution will be along the lines of making the leap from considering a solar panel as "something you bolt on up there" to an integral part of the house construction. I'm imagining something like actual roof sections that are designed to be pretty and functional as roofs just as much as they're designed to be solar panels. They would replace the roof, instead of being tossed on top of the roof.
How to Double the Efficiency of Solar Panels
Here's an idea for any of the local Silicon Valley (or anywhere else, I don't care) solar energy statups: a photovoltaic panel and a solar water heater combined into one unit.
Photovoltaic panels generate electricity, they're dark colored, and they heat up. Solar water heaters are dark colored, they heat up, and they warm the water piped through them. There's no reason you couldn't do both functions at once, effectively doubling the efficiency of the system. (Especially if you normally have an electric hot water heater.)
It's a freebie, go for it.