Feb 18, 2014

Low-cost solar power up, has fossil fuels on the way out

Barely three years ago, the Obama administration launched theSunShot Initiative, an ambitious effort to transform solar power from an exotic, expensive form of energy into a mainstream fuel that can compete on price with petroleum, coal, and natural gas. In the latest development for low-cost solar power, last week Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz announced that the program is already 60 percent of the way toward its goal of bringing theaverage price for a utility-scale solar power plant down to the target price of six cents per kilowatt-hour.

In raw numbers, that's a steep slide from an average of 21 cents in 2010 to only 11 cents by the end of 2013. That's now less than the average price of electricity in the U.S., which is about 12 cents per kWh, according to the Energy Information Administration.

The trend toward low-cost solar power is nowhere near at an end. The new announcement came with word of yet another SunShot initiative that will help bring the cost of solar power down even more in the coming years: A $25 million funding package for innovative technologies that focuses on manufacturing costs.

$25 million for solar power innovation

The SunShot initiative attacks the cost of solar power from all angles. One focus is on high-tech R&D that aims to make photovoltaic cells and other forms of solar energy harvesting more efficient. Another addresses the "soft costs" involved in installing solar equipment, including permits, administrative costs and labor.

A third area, which the new $25 million funding package is focused on, aims at bringing down the cost of manufacturing solar equipment, in addition to reducing the time and expense involved in installing that equipment.

That will mean, for example, the development of new modular systems that can be manufactured, shipped and set up with minimum expense, which translates into increased automation at both the production and installation ends.

The focus on manufacturing for low-cost solar power dovetails with several other Obama administration initiatives related to clean energy and energy efficiency, including a $7 million round of funding that will helplower the cost of LED lighting and a rather intriguing mashup between the Defense Department and the maker movement's TechShop.

Low-cost solar power up, fossil fuels on the way out

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