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Can DOE’s Sunshot Challenge Fast-Track Grid-Parity Solar?

by :  In about a week, some of the brightest minds in government, industry, and academia will gather in Denver, Colorado to talk about what the U.S. can do to play catch-up in the global clean energy race.The SunShot Grand Challenge: Summit and Technology Forum is the first event in a series of Department of Energy Grand Challenges that organizers hope will  address the scientific, technological, and market barriers to achieving breakthroughs in the clean energy market.

For the past five years, the fossil fuel industry has done its best to impede both public and private investment in renewable research and development. While politicians wring their hands about what might happen if fossil fuel subsidies were instead distributed to solar and wind, countries like SpainGermany, and Japan have been jumped in with both feet. As a result, these countries are far closer to achieving grid-parity than we are.

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But the U.S. isn’t out of the race just yet. Although we may have political gridlock, we also have incredible potential for innovation in the face of adversity. At this month’s SunShot Grand Challenge, the DOE hopes that collecting enough talent together in the same room will catalyze some much needed solutions.

EarthTechling recently caught up with Minh Le, Chief Engineer for the Energy Department’s Solar Program, to learn more about what the SunShot Challenge is and how it hopes to boost solar’s efficiency while simultaneously reducing cost.

ET:  What is the single biggest factor holding back America’s shift to renewable energy?

Minh Le: The single biggest barrier that prevents solar from meeting a greater percentage of our electricity needs is cost. That’s why all of the DOE solar program efforts focus on making solar cost-competitive with traditional forms of electricity by the end of the decade. By supporting the work of more than 250 researchers, universities, businesses, and local governments, the SunShot Initiative has made significant progress toward this goal since it was launched two years ago.

ET: Why does the DOE feel that it’s important to address barriers in the renewable/solar energy industry?

Minh Le: We believe the energy challenges we face demand an “all-of-the-above” approach that couples our domestic fossil energy resources with renewable sources. This strategy can achieve sustainable energy independence while also lowering costs for consumers.

ET: What progress has been made toward achieving grid-parity solar energy over the past two years?

Minh Le: According to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the average installed cost of residential and commercial photovoltaic systems completed in 2010 fell by roughly 17 percent from the year before, and by an additional 11 percent within the first six months of 2011. Much of this price decline was due to decreasing module costs, but significant progress was also made in reducing non-module costs.

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ET: How will the SunShot Initiative help push the solar industry forward over the next decade?

Minh Le: SunShot is working to lower costs along every section of the technology pipeline, which are all necessary to achieve grid parity. Our project portfolio includes everything from developing an efficient solar cell that’s as thin as a human hair to creating a Geographic Information Systems (GIS)-based tool that can perform site assessments from space.

 A new program that we will announce at the SunShot Grand Challenge is a cash prize that rewards the first three solar companies to install 5,000 rooftop PV systems for an average cost of $2/W. Breaking this price barrier, which was considered unachievable a decade ago, is an important step toward reaching our goal of $1.50/W for installed residential systems by 2020. Programs like this inspire the industry to bring change to the marketplace more quickly.

It would appear that educating the American consumer about how far solar has come in the past few years is key to tackling the point of view that it’s still “too expensive” or “too complicated” for the average consumer. In addition to essential research and development so that the cost of solar continues to fall, the industry must be willing to challenge traditional models of what it means to buy and sell energy. Solar leasing as well as plug and play modules hold great promise for a cash-strapped society, and they need to become more accessible.

By the end of the Grand Challenge event in Denver, DOE wants to establish the path forward for both the SunShot Initiative and future departmental efforts to support solar technology. It’s a tall order, but if anyone is up to the task, it’s American innovators.

The Challenge, which will take place on June 13-14th, is already sold out. Check energy.gov/sunshot for coverage following the event.

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