THE STORY IS BY NOW familiar: Heat harnessed from the sun would provide nontoxic fuel and become an inexhaustible source of power that would reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, in general, and on foreign oil, in particular.

This wild proclamation became the battle cry in the '70s, and it was hoped that the United States would be using the sun, the wind, and other renewable resources to generate 20 percent of its electricity by 2000, Business Week reported in September. This was a pipe dream. Low fossil fuel costs meant that the more-expensive solar power was largely nonexistent in the United States. In fact, the share of electricity produced by solar cell technology in the United States last year was 0.07 percent, Business Week said.

But solar supporters might be having the last laugh, as the days of cheap energy come to an abrupt end. Amid news that heating oil, natural gas, and electricity will be way higher this winter, there are reports of emerging technology that could lower the cost of solar energy. STMicroelectronics, Europe's largest semiconductor maker, says that by the end of next year, it expects to have made the first stable prototypes of a technology to produce solar cells to generate electricity 20 times cheaper than today's solar panels. As more states adopt incentive programs for homeowners to install solar energy systems on their houses, the country has seen a 27 percent increase in photovoltaic installations. Moreover, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 offers a $2,000 tax credit for residential buildings that have solar water heaters and photovoltaic systems.

SIGHT UNSEEN: These solar panels blend in so well with the roof that they're almost invisible.
SIGHT UNSEEN: These solar panels blend in so well with the roof that they're almost invisible.