By Mattie DeDoes
Last month, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced that it will provide $32 million in funding to advance certain aspects of the solar energy market. About 40% of the funding will be used for training solar technicians and other members of the workforce. Additionally, nearly 50% will go toward innovation in concentrated solar power (CSP) plants. The remaining $5 million will fund projects that allow for easier data sharing amongst stakeholders, utilities, and others involved in the solar industry. These funding opportunities are part of the DOE SunShot Initiative, a government program which strives to make solar energy more affordable for consumers through investment in technology, research and development.
The SunShot Initiative, a decade-long strategic plan announced in 2011, aims to reduce the cost of solar energy by 75 percent by 2020. Modeled and named after John F. Kennedy’s Moonshot goal (to place a man on the moon by the by the end of the 1960’s) SunShot serves the DOE’s overall goal of cutting out more than 25% of the nation’s 2005 greenhouse gas emissions by 2025. The SunShot Vision Study, a guiding document for the Initiative’s work published in February 2012, is the most comprehensive review of U.S. solar energy potential ever produced. The study contains a detailed cost analysis for different types of solar power production, as well as projections for the program’s ability to reduce costs and pollutants in the future.
In this study, it is estimated that with a continual rise in investment in our country’s solar energy network, solar power could account for 14% of electricity demand in 2030, and 27% in 2050. Currently, less than 1% of the nation’s net energy generated comes from solar, but this number is on the rise. The total capacity of U.S. solar installations has increased tenfold since 2008.
According to the SunShot 2014 Portfolio, the country is on its way to realizing the solar energy goals created by this plan. So far, the $900 million in investments for SunShot have been applied across five focus areas: photovoltaic (PV); concentrated solar power (CSP); systems integration; technology-to-market; and soft costs. As the progress in these areas improves, the deployment of solar systems becomes faster, cheaper and easier.
Achieving the previously mentioned 75% cost reduction in solar energy would necessitate a drop in utility-scale (i.e., larger than standard household installations) PV prices from $0.21/kWh in 2010 to $0.06/kWh in 2020. These prices are currently more than 60% of the way to the defined $0.06/kWh goal, having been reduced to $0.11/kWh in 2014. CSP prices have also dropped from $0.21/kWh to $0.13/kWh during the same time period. In addition, jobs in the solar industry have increased by 20% since the fall of 2012, which is ten times the national job growth rate.
New Funding Opportunities
The $32 million in DOE funding will be distributed across the three divisions described below. Within each division, between three to ten national labs, universities, or private companies will receive financial awards for research and development (R&D). The recipients of these grants will be announced later this summer.
Training the Workforce
This most recent set of SunShot funding opportunities allocates $12 million for training technicians for careers in solar energy. In addition, it will provide education for professionals involved in fields indirectly related to solar, including real estate, insurance, and finance. This new funding will build upon the success of the Solar Instructor Training Network (SITN), created in 2009. So far, the SITN has partnered with more than 400 community colleges and technical high schools to train over 30,000 solar workers and over 1,000 instructors.
In addition to providing technical training, some of these funds will go toward supporting the Grid Engineering for Accelerated Renewable Energy Deployment (GEARED) Initiative. GEARED was launched in 2013, and focuses on grid power systems R&D and improving the operation of a distributed energy network.
The DOE will provide $5 million to finance improvements in data collection and exchange. Electrical performance measurements, and tracked financial data, will allow the solar industry to determine cost-benefit analysis. By allowing utilities, developers and investors access to a wider network of information, a more competitive and fairly priced solar market can be achieved. SunShot hopes that this added transparency will lead to innovative business solutions that will encourage residents and companies to adopt solar energy.
The $15 million CSP funding opportunity will focus on reducing the cost of a solar collector field. The collector is a system in which energy is converted from light to heat, prior to converting that heat to electricity. Learn more about the operation of CSP plants and thermal energy storage.
Collectors are the most expensive part of a CSP plant, comprising up to 40% of the total cost. Specific measures that will be taken to reduce this cost include, increasing optical accuracy of lenses and reflectors, decreasing the total amount of material used and improving manufacturing processes. The DOE website states a few of the goals being targeted for more efficient CSP plants.
The continued funding available, as part of the SunShot Initiative, represents the belief and commitment to solar energy as a viable power source in the United States. The 2012 Vision Study illustrated the potential for solar energy to have a great impact. Only a few years later, that potential is already becoming a reality, with nearly 40% reduction in cost for utility-scale CSP, and a 50% drop for PV.