Reaching for the Sun

Although solar interest has grown rapidly within the last several years, the movement is still in infancy, and as a result, costs are invariably high and it takes years to recoup the initial investment. Now, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has announced an ambitious plan that would lower installed solar costs by 75%, bringing installing utility-scale solar at $1 per watt by 2020 and drop solar power down to 6 cent per kilowatt-hour. If achieved, $1 per watt would represent a giant step towards commercial viability of solar energy, not to mention the likely acceleration of solar installation in residential areas. The plan, known as SunShot, is a play off President Kennedy’s 1961 pledge to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Amidst critics, Energy Secretary Steven Chu has devised a $27 million funding program, to be spread among nine companies. While the goal seems farfetched, some solar industry executives, such as Frank van Mierlo, CEO of Sunshot grant recipient 1366 Technologies, believe they’re well-positioned to succeed. Says van Mierlo, “We’ll get there. Look at the historical cost curve of solar. The production cost comes down 10 percent every year.” Even with cautious optimism, there is a lot of work to be done between now and 2020 if solar industries are to reach the goal of $1 per watt. As it stands now, the solar industry is a ways away from reaching the $1 per watt goal. In order to fulfill the DOE’s vision, the solar industry will have to streamline in a big way. Considerable module efficiency gains will have to be made, and costs for installation, operations, and maintenance and all other system components will have to be slashed dramatically. Most companies that received Sunshot grants are already exploring new possibilities of streamlining the solar process and reduce costs. Among these companies are PPG Industries, whose target is to develop better thin-film efficiency of their panels as well as increase the durability and sustainability of their products. Another grant recipient, 3M, is working to reduce the thin-film installation cost, as well as increase the versatility of their panels for all weather purposes. The solar energy industry has undergone dramatic improvements within the last decade. Now, the U.S. Department of Energy is optimistic that the field will take another big leap by 2020. For Kennedy and the Space Program, the Moon was the limit. For the solar industry, only the Sun stands in their way.

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