It’s an all-too-familiar refrain in the United States these days: “Solar is too expensive.”

Supporters of solar power have long had to face the argument that conventional energy sources are simply cheaper. This economic reality is a substantial portion of what underlies the sizable government subsidies to solar companies such as Solyndra in the U.S., and why the Chinese government is vigorously subsidizing its own solar industry.

A poll conducted in the U.S. by clean-tech communications firm Tigercomm reflects this as well: The majority of respondents said solar power is too expensive, will remain an intermittent source of power, and can’t truly compete directly with coal or natural gas. A mere 41% believed solar was affordable, and only 34% believed it was reliable.

But new solar cell technology–specifically improvements involving nanotechnology–may change minds with surprising speed.

Even as the fallout from the Solyndra incident continues to tint the public perception of the technology, the U.S. government still appears bullish on solar energy’s potential.

The U.S. Export-Import Bank, an independent agency of the federal government, reported last summer that it has $500 million in loans in the pipeline to fund new solar energy projects in India. As reported on on August 17, the loans for the new projects–intended to generate about 350 MW of solar power–come on top of $75 million in financing that the bank provided during 2011 for solar projects in that country. The projects will harness solar modules manufactured in the U.S.; the bank claims that by loaning money to pay for projects in foreign countries using U.S. goods and services, it generates U.S. jobs.

There is a substantial need in developing countries such as India for investment in solar power and other alternative energy solutions. But at the same time, the U.S. government is not planning to skimp on investing in the development of new technologies at home. Domestic solar power research is still perceived by some to strengthen our ability to handle our own energy needs, while fostering the creation of new technologies.

For evidence, consider the fact that the U.S. Department of Defense has set a goal to satisfy 25% of its energy needs using renewable sources by 2020, according to a recent report in National Defense magazine.

Analysts predict that U.S. military bases will increasingly be looking for more reliable and secure energy solutions, and some of the largest Defense Department suppliers have already responded to the campaign for green technology by resolving to develop electric smart grids to be used on military bases.

Aside from smart grids, another facet of green tech in which the Defense Department has expressed interest is the next generation of solar cell technology. As the specific strengths of thin-film solar cells become more widely known, it is likely that their potential military applications will become clearer as well.

The U.S. Air Force has already awarded contracts for the development of flexible, ultra-high efficiency, multi-junction solar cells for space and defense applications, as well as to create third-generation, single-junction solar cells that harness quantum dot structures to enhance their performance.

In addition, NASA has provided contracts to companies as part of a program to increase solar cell current and voltage by employing quantum-structured active regions and incorporating advanced light-trapping structures.

Even though the efficiency of photovoltaic solar cells has been gaining on conventional energy sources such as natural gas for many years, there is still room for technical improvement. Eventually, it is possible that these enhancements will raise the status of solar power as a viable option in the U.S., lowering its cost to the point where critics will no longer question its cost-effectiveness.

In the hunt to develop a new generation of thin-film solar cells, companies such as Magnolia Solar Corp. of Woburn, MA, are moving toward a pair of goals: greater efficiency and lower cost. This is important because in spite of the well-known green advantages of solar power, the cost-benefit ratio has served as a roadblock on the way toward a complete implementation of the technology. Yet today, new advances may allow solar power to become feasible on scales that were previously unimagined, ensuring the potential of reliable electric power for substantial segments of the Earth’s population with no current access to this vital resource.

“Breakthroughs in nanotechnology are making it possible to capture a wider band of the solar radiation falling on a solar cell than previously feasible,” says Ashok K. Sood, PhD, president and CEO of Magnolia Solar.

“A nanostructured surface of a solar cell can be made to reduce the amount of light it reflects, in effect trapping more light so that a larger fraction of photons is available for conversion into electricity.”

Nanostructure-based anti-reflection coatings can upgrade the performance of a solar cell by reducing losses due to reflection to less than 2%. Simultaneously, nanotechnology can boost the power output of the solar cell throughout the day-even during dusk and dawn-when the sun is low on the horizon.

Additionally, it becomes possible to harness not only visible light, but also ultraviolet and infrared radiation, to enhance solar cell performance. Finally, pursuing a thin-film design can minimize the costs of semiconductor materials.

The consequence of these steps could be the achievement of increased power output and ultra-high efficiency without an associated cost increase. It now appears possible to obtain an efficiency of at least 20% and a cost of substantially cheaper than 50 cents per watt, substantially exceeding today’s industry averages for efficiency and cost.

If and when such technology is implemented on a wide scale, it could finally usher in the dawn of a true golden age of solar power in the U.S.

Sebastian Thaler is a freelance science and technology writer based in New York City.