U.S. DOE Examines What Motivates Solar Adoption To Sustain Growth


The 2013 U.S. solar market insight report produced by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) in partnership with GTM Research, points to the continuing ‘explosive’ growth of the solar sector. The report points out that the U.S. installed 4,751 MW of solar PV in 2013, up 41% over 2012 and nearly 15 times the amount installed in 2008.

It is worth mentioning that there is a clear correlation between the price of solar panels and installed capacity. Amit Ronen, director of the GW Solar Institute, which contributed to The Solar Foundation's recent report on U.S. solar sector jobs, says the price of solar panels has declined 80% since 2008. No precipitous fall in solar prices; no ‘record-shattering’ jump in installed capacity and solar jobs.

Minh Le, program manager of the Solar Energy Technologies Program at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), says the numbers in the SEIA/GTM Research report are ‘really exciting’ and demonstrate the goal of achieving unsubsidized grid parity for solar power by 2020 – as envisioned by the DOE's SunShot Initiative – is achievable.

‘We are about 60% of the way toward that goal,’ Le says. ‘Of course, the first 60% was the easiest.’

He says there are still technical avenues to explore for improving the price performance of solar power – particularly, research and development efforts to increase the conversion efficiencies of solar cells. Also, there are process efficiencies to be gained in manufacturing. However, if venture capital investment is any guide, the low-hanging fruit with regard to PV cell technology has already been picked, at least as far as the U.S. is concerned.

By Le's estimate, about 64% of what remains to be squeezed out of the costs of solar power in order to hit the SunShot target of $0.06/W by 2020 are non-hardware costs – the proverbial soft costs.

‘Soft costs is a pretty huge bucket,’ Le says, one that contains permitting, installation and grid interconnection costs.

What is interesting about the contributors to the total cost per kWh (c/kWh) is the how the proportion of these has changed over time. According to a recent DOE study, soft costs now represent the largest portion of the c/kWh solar power. In 2010, fully $0.11 of the c/kWh was borne by the costs of the solar panels alone. In 2013, the costs of the panels declined to about $0.04/kWh. Soft costs in 2010 imposed nearly $0.07/kWh on the price of solar. In 2013, approximately $0.05/kWh could be attributed to soft costs.

The persistence of these non-hardware costs says something about how difficult they are to address. Le says SunShot's Rooftop Solar Challenge encourages governments, universities, private enterprise and other stakeholders to address processes required to install and finance residential and small commercial solar power systems.

While many soft costs have identifiable targets, such as permits and interconnection rules, Le says consumer behavior is an important piece of the puzzle.

‘Group purchase programs such as the Solarize programs in various states show a dramatic increase in adoption rates,’ he says.

Le describes these programs as ‘sticky,’ in that neighbors seeing neighbors install solar has a positive effect on installation rates. The Solar Energy Evolution and Diffusion Studies (SEEDS) program funds projects testing and piloting new approaches to solar adoption in order to identify what accounts for stickiness. Some of these SEEDS investigations involve ‘diffusion theory,’ which attempts to explain new ideas, products and technologies spread through society.

‘Technology provides opportunities to change the existing models of an industry,’ Le says, adding that solar is on a trajectory akin to the telecommunications and information technology industries before it.

Nevertheless, success is by no means assured. While rates of installation and adoption are promising today, the conditions that produce them may not be there tomorrow.

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