As part of the ‘Sunshot’ initiative to reduce the cost of solar energy systems, the US Department of Energy (DoE) has made up to $5m available this year to develop ‘plug-and-play’ photovoltaic (PV) systems that can be purchased, installed and operational in one day.
The aim of Sunshot is to bring down the cost of generating solar energy in the US by about 75% so that it is cost-competitive with other forms of energy (without subsidies) before the end of the decade. That would bring the cost down to roughly $1 a watt - six cents per kilowatt-hour – so that solar energy systems could be broadly deployed.
The plug-and-play funding is part of the DoE’s strategy to reduce the ‘soft’ costs of solar power deployment, such as installation and interconnection, which currently make up more than half of the total cost of residential systems. The funding is aimed at driving innovations to change the design and installation of residential PV systems.
The plug-and-play idea follows the lead from the computer and automotive industries, where products and systems can be quickly and easily connected. For solar generation the idea is to make the whole process of buying, installing, and connecting solar energy systems faster, easier, and less expensive. Plug-and-play PV systems could be installed without special training or tools, and simply plugged into a PV-ready circuit, through which an automatic detection system would initiate communication between the solar energy system and the utility.
As part of a planned five-year funding program, the Energy Department will invest an initial $5m this year for two projects that will develop prototypes. A further $20m will be available over the next four years to support these efforts.
In Europe, most of the government encouragement for the adoption of renewable energy seems to be around deciding what tariff levels should be set for energy fed back into the grid system. But changing levels of tariffs have created issues in the UK and Germany (although the generous tariffs did have a positive impact on the renewable industry in Germany).
But you do wonder whether initiatives like this one in the US would be a better use of some of the government investment in Europe. Until the real cost of solar energy matches other sources of power, renewables are never really going to take off. Subsidies are, at best, a short term solution. Helping make solar cheaper – and that means installation too – is a better way forward in the long term.