Here Comes the Sun, Courtesy of the Federal Government

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This guest post was contributed by Michael Breen, an energy industry executive.

When it comes to the federal government, leadership comes in many forms. Government leaders can demonstrate that something is important to the country by passing laws. By giving a program an expanded budget. And, sometimes, simply by stating inspiring goals.

The SunShot Initiative has been a leader in large part because of its publicly stated goals, which were as ambitious as they were inspiring. A program of the U.S. Department of Energy, the SunShot Initiative is an effort to provide the kind of leadership that pure capitalism could not. The SunShot Initiative has a stated goal: “to drive down the cost of solar electricity and support solar adoption. SunShot aims to make solar energy a low-cost electricity source for all Americans through research and development efforts in collaboration with public and private partners.”

SunShot funds research to a broad list of constituents that include public and private entities and universities. However, it main feature has been to provide leadership to the industry and to help direct and chart the results of industry progress and research and development throughout the world.

When SunShot was launched in 2011, it set a goal for solar energy to become cost-competitive — without subsidies — with traditional forms of electricity by 2020. This goal set a $0.09 per-kilowatt-hour cost target for residential photovoltaics (PV) and a $0.06 per kilowatt hour for utility-scale PV. Those numbers have already been met in various U.S. markets. On top of that, just last week in India, we saw a project delivered at $0.05 per KwH.

The magic of Sunshot is to provide R&D direction and create a community of engineers and executives to focus on the next technical issue that needs to be addressed. It provides the early stage seed money and the leadership defining where the next big problem might be. It also telegraphs to industry the value of that solution to whomever finds it first.

The SunShot Initiative comprises five subprograms:

  • Photovoltaics
  • Concentrating Solar Power
  • Systems Integration
  • Soft Costs
  • Technology to Market

The two subprograms focusing on Solar PV and CSP seek to aggressively advance technology by improving efficiency, energy yield and reliability — and also by lowering manufacturing costs. They also seek to advance new concepts in manufacturing and delivery. These subprograms also fund small projects that have advanced very targeted areas. They are moving the ball with a breadth that no single company could do by itself.

These two subprograms have been highly successful. But it is the other three areas that make the SunShot Initiative so fantastic. By experimenting with innovative strategies and solutions to make the selling and delivery of solar easier, faster, and cheaper, the Initiative has enabled the entire industry to thrive. The R&D has included vetting of programs used by commercial banks to prototype development and funding of commercial scale-up. A subprogram also supports innovative business platform development.

Since 2007, the Department of Energy has used a relatively small sum of $59 million to attract $1.2 billion in private capital for developing renewable energy. With almost 300 projects, SunShot’s work helps to drive costs down and spur the solar market. Check out SunShot’s Success Stories if you need more convincing.

It will be hard to stop the leadership of the SunShot Initiative. In November 2016, the SunShot Initiative announced further cost targets to be achieved by 2030: $0.05 per kilowatt hour for residential PV, and $0.03 per kilowatt hour for utility-scale PV.

Behind the leadership of the Department of Energy and a motivated community of engineers, these cost targets will, no doubt, also continue to fall.

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