How Low Can You Go?


Launched in 2011, the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) SunShot Initiative aims to make solar power cost-competitive with fossil fuels by 2020. Last month, the DOE unveiled an attention-grabbing new addition to SunShot called ‘America's Most Affordable Rooftop Solar.’

Not a reality television show (though, admittedly, that idea is intriguing), but an actual competition for solar professionals and their partners, the program will award $10 million to the first three teams that install 5,000 small rooftop PV arrays at an average price of $2/W or below. The race kicks off Aug. 1.

By setting the prize-winning installed-­cost threshold at $2/W – which is considered a significant milestone for solar power's affordability – the competition will ‘spur novel public-partnerships, original business models and innovative approaches,’ the DOE claims in a press release.

But is cheaper always better? Although reducing the costs associated with permitting, financing and installing systems – among SunShot's overall goals – would indisputably help the PV industry, the DOE's tactic of holding a contest for installers to rapidly reach a given dollar-per-watt threshold also struck many readers as misguided or even dangerous.

‘Launching such initiatives with myopic strategies could prove detrimental to the industry as a whole,’ wrote one commenter in response to SI's initial report on the news. ‘This is not a new 'business' problem to solve, but targeting price as the hurdle undermines quality and value.’

Another reader worried that if ‘America's Most Affordable Rooftop Solar’ does not include minimum standards for system components, poor-quality installations will proliferate. (The DOE's contest registration documents do require UL certification on components, among other requirements.)

Yet another reader slammed the contest as ‘unbelievably simplistic and stupid,’ noting that the industry already deals with ‘cost-cutting, fly-by-night companies’ and bankrupt installers.

Even the idea of ‘cheap solar’ suggests poor quality to some industry professionals – and, potentially, to the public. ‘[It is] not good to promote solar power in the public's mind as cheap-but-shoddy,’ one reader warned.

‘Solar should never be done 'cheaply' – it should be done well by professionals,’ agreed a reader on Twitter, adding the ominous hashtag #BadPRKillsTrade.

Some industry pros, however, disagreed. ‘There is no reason why the two can't go hand in hand: professional excellence with excellent pricing,’ one reader tweeted.

This Sun Dial column was originally published in the July 2012 issue of Solar Industry.

Editor's note: To submit your own contribution to Viewpoints, email Jessica Lillian at

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