We all know that one of the biggest stumbling blocks to wide scale adoption of renewable energy as part an onsite power system is cost. While, in the long run, installing solar panels on your roof or carport will save you money by decreasing the amount of energy you’re pulling from the grid, the truth is that many times the ROI is so far in the future that it seems to disappear beyond the horizon. But the DOE is getting ready to change all that with a new program aimed at reducing the cost of solar power to $1 per watt.
Welcome to “The SunShot Initiative.”
The primary goal of the SunShot Initiative is to accelerate and advance current DOE research efforts by focusing on solar energy programs in order to, “make large-scale solar energy systems cost competitive without subsidies by the end of the decade.” Instead of supporting solar investments that achieve “incremental efficiency improvements,” the SunShot initiative will focus, “on the installed system as a whole, including non-technical barriers.” This refocusing means that DOE will continue to invest in improvements in solar cell technologies and manufacturing, and the department will also push for a reduction in the high costs associated with installation and permitting, including streamlining and digitizing local permitting processes and developing codes and standards to “ensure high performance over the approximately 20-year lifetime of residential solar products.”
Last month, the Santa Barbara Summit on Energy Efficiency included a panel discussion on the SunShot initiative, with commentary from a professionals in the field, including Ramamoorthy Ramesh (Program Manager, Solar Energy Technologies Program, US DOE), Ryne Raffaele (Director, National Center for Photovoltaics, National Renewable Energy Laboratory), Jack Peurach (Executive Vice President, Research and Development, SunPower Corporation), and Lynda Ziegler (Executive Vice President, Power Delivery Services, Southern California Edison). The panelists offered a wide range of perspectives and prognostications—below some highlights.
According to Ramesh, the US must come together to create a “SunShot World.”
"We need to get more competitive," he said, pointing out that the US currently commands only 5% of global market share in annual PV production (2009) and 8% in installed PV (2008).
In order to bring solar power down to a $1-per-watt average, Ramesh listed a variety of commitments and hurdles essential to the cost, including:
* Fostering innovation and growth in the domestic PV industry
* Helping domestic startup companies overcome first "Valley of Death”
* Strong leveraging of government resources
* Pre-IPO Gap investment ($50M to 100M)
* A Public- Private Partnership to Stimulate Manufacturing (state, fed govs along with customer, tech, and private equity)
According to Ramesh, achieving these goals will create a manufacturing base and also allow for evaluation of different and emerging technologies. Additionally, in order for solar power to “play nice” with our current energy infrastructure, Ramesh emphasized the need for balance at the utility level—achievable by bringing exiting IT structure to bear on residential solar to help bring down costs.
While the fulfilling the dream of the SunShot initiative may seem daunting, Raffaele, followed up Ramesh’s presentation with an optimistic bent. “To put it simply,” said Raffaele, “business is booming"
According to Raffaele, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is the
only national laboratory dedicated to renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development. By collaborating with industry and university partners, Raffaele said the NREL has the ability to link scientific discovery with product development in order to accelerate commercialization.
Raffaele emphasized that the NREL is an “independent arbiter of quality", that focuses on innovations in PV technologies that can drive industry growth. As such, the NREL is technology agnostic.
“I've never seen a solar cell I didn't like,” said Raffaele. “We lead the world in basic R&D for PV, no doubt out it, but we analyze all technologies; we don’t pick winners.”
Some of the current “winners” include:
* Current popular commercial technology that is at about 27% efficiency
* A III-V rate of improvement of almost 1%/year
* Crystalline and wafer technologies that currently account for 85% of the market
And while the US went from a 50% solar market share two decades ago, Raffaele says that deployment has increased by over 100% last year. Nevertheless, 80% of deployment is still in Europe (with Germany leading the way) and 70% of worldwide PV deployment is still small scale (mostly residential) rather than utility grade.
But US solar companies growing, and, “the only limiting effect is that they can’t grow fast enough.” Solar incentives have played a part in fueling explosive growth in solar technologies domestically, and, with thin films and thin silicon making inroads, Raffaele feels that that SunShot $1-per-watt goal is finally within reach and available to everyone.
“If we can get it down to a dollar a watt,” said Raffaele, “it becomes a good choice everywhere.”
Peurach went on to demonstrate how quickly technologies can change with his “Experience Curve.” Starting in 1979, when solar power averaged $33.44 per watt, Peurach charted the exponential growth we’ve already experienced over the last few decades: In 2010 solar energy now averages about $1.88 per watt. The SunShot goal aims to cut the cost even further, with a 2017 pre-installation cost of $0.40 per Wp.
Peurach also discussed the relationship between solar power and energy efficiency, noting that increasing efficiency will allow for, “a lot of leverage in system economics.”
Ziegler, wrapped up the panel by focusing on how the SunShot Initiative will create a place where “the solar meets the system.”
“We have a lot of solutions, but they’re not necessarily cost effective,” explained Ziegler.
Because Southern California Edison (SCE) delivers more renewable power than any other utility in the country, a solar PV price drop to $1 per watt would essentially mean that SCE would purchase more of it, said Ziegler, once the utility considered after several factors, including:
* The price of Solar PV in relation to other renewable resources
* Load profile congruency with customer demand
* Transmission and distribution grid restraints
* The “Intermittency of supply” issue
Additionally, Zeigler predicted that a high penetration of solar PV for distributed generation could create transmission and distribution issues, including:
* Safety concerns: line maintenance and service
* Voltage regulation: new inverter research implementation required
* Transient over voltage: islanding compounds issue
* Switching impacts: resulting from high DG penetration
* Breaker upgrades for short circuit duty are especially difficult to plan
* Lack of standard communications protocol between inverters and grid
In conclusion, Zeigler emphasized the impact the SunShot initiative can have on all renewable energy sources. By reducing costs, those sources can become more accessible. The demand is there, said Zeigler, but, “we need to figure out how to make it work in a cost-effective way.”
Presentations and video of the Santa Barbara Summit on Energy Efficiency are now available online at http://iee.ucsb.edu/sbsee2011.