By Jonathan Marshall
If you’d like to change the world—and win a multi-million-dollar prize while doing it—get busy discovering new ways to sequence the human genome, send a robot to the moon, or revolutionize digital health care.
Or you could just figure out a way to slash the costs of installing solar panels on homes and businesses to make small-scale photovoltaic (PV) systems truly competitive with utility power for the first time.
Following the example set by the X PRIZE Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy this month offered a $7 million first prize for the team that best manages to lower the “soft” or non-hardware costs of rooftop PV systems to $1 per watt. (Second and third prize winners will receive $2 million and $1 million respectively.)
To win, smart innovators must figure out how to cut the costs of permitting, licensing, and installing these systems—independent of the cost of the panels themselves—by two-thirds or more.
“This race to the rooftops is designed to inspire innovative teams including installers, local governments, and utilities to make solar energy systems more affordable,” said U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu. “This aggressive target is an important step that will help bring us significantly closer to reaching the SunShot goal of cost-competitive solar energy by the end of the decade.”
SunShot is DOE’s initiative to enlist the best minds of private industry, academia, and the national laboratories to drive the cost of solar to just 6 cents per kilowatt-hour, lower than many forms of fossil-fuel generation. Its name derives from President Kennedy’s successful “moon shot” program.
But even as the price of solar hardware has fallen 400 percent over the past four years due to intense competition and technological innovation, soft costs have proved stubbornly resistant to shrinkage. They now make up more than half the cost of most solar projects. That must change before solar can compete without subsidies.
Fortunately, a lot of smart minds are focused on overcoming this obstacle. For example, vendors are now producing modular solar panel systems that sit on low-slope rooftops without needing any mounting hardware. They snap together, greatly reducing the need to connect electrical leads or use specialized installation tools.
Some solar advocates also see a potential for big savings through streamlining the sometimes onerous process of permitting and interconnecting solar to the grid. A myriad of different local regulations slows the process. That’s arguably one reason the installed cost of solar in Germany is reportedly only about 54 percent of that in the United States.
Finding solutions will clearly take a lot of creative thinking outside the lab. Hopefully, $10 million will go a long way toward stimulating the necessary breakthroughs. But if that’s not enough motivation, the first-place team will also enjoy lifetime boasting rights as “The Winner of America’s Most Affordable Rooftop Solar” prize, according to DOE’s marketing folks.
Email Jonathan Marshall at firstname.lastname@example.org.