Race to the Sun
President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to be the global leader in space exploration in 1961. "This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth," he said at the time. The moon race was on and, decades later, it can be said that our victory provided knowledge that benefited the entire world. Today, it’s a race to the sun and, once again, the U.S. has issued a challenge to its countrymen in the form of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) SunShot Initiative.
The goal of SunShot is to have solar energy achieve cost parity with other forms of energy by the end of the decade. If the cost of installed solar systems can be reduced by up to 75%, it will ensure widespread adoption of this renewable energy and position the U.S. as a global leader in clean energy.
The Department of Energy has issued a series of grants to facilitate its objective (PennFuture was the beneficiary of one such grant in 2011), focusing on photovoltaics and concentrating solar power, systems integration, and market transformation projects. These funding opportunities seek to foster collaboration among industry, universities, national laboratories, federal, state, and local governments and non-government agencies and advocacy groups.
This past week, the SunShot Summit and Technology Forum was held in Denver, Colorado. Over two days, leaders from government, academia and industry worked together to address the scientific, technological and market barriers facing renewable energy. Among the speakers at the summit was Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a champion of clean energy.
“The United States is in a fierce fight to be the leader in innovation and invention,” noted Chu. Even so, progress is being made. Solar modules, which were going for $4 per watt three years ago, are now averaging 85 cents per watt.
The next logical step is streamlining the solar permitting process, which is unwieldy, to say the least. Permitting costs can account for up to half the cost of a solar system, and there are a staggering 18,000 jurisdictions with different zoning and permitting processes in the U.S. In Germany, a global leader in solar, the process is far simpler: sign a contract with an installer and follow it up with a fifteen-minute online registration process. Mused Chu, “Why can’t the installation of a rooftop PV system be handled like the installation of a gas water heater? Guess which one is more dangerous?”
If SunShot’s goals are reached, says Chu, the cost of solar will be eight cents per kilowatt hour. Clearly, the race is on. One SunShot incubator was able to leverage $17.5 million into $32 billion in private investment. These programs are working and there’s no going back: halting Department of Energy loan programs would cost taxpayers $250 million per year in returns on those loans.
Who knew the race to the sun could be such fun?