The new Congress promises to hack the budget with a machete (provided the budget does not affect US Representatives’ office budgets or their own districts, of course), but the Department of Energy (DOE) is pushing ahead with an investment program that could help the United States become more energy independent.
The DOE’s latest initiative parallels John Kennedy’s space program of the 1960s, often referred to as the “moon shot” goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of that decade. Now Energy Secretary Steven Chu is behind a program analogous with Eisenhower’s push for science education, Nixon’s nudge towards more environmental cleanup, and if anyone remembers, the younger Bush’s promotion of hydrogen technology.
The DOE’s SunShot Initiative is a collaboration between the agency, universities, research laboratories, and the American solar power industry. Should this program’s goals succeed, by the end of this decade the United States may regain its dominant position in the global solar market. In 1995, American companies held 43% of the world’s solar market; now German and Chinese companies have left the United States in their shadows with American companies holding only 6% of the globe’s total market share.
To reach this goal, the DOE is refocusing its annual US$200 million solar energy research budget towards greater solar cell efficiency, improved systems design, and increased scalability so that solar energy can be cost-competitive with fossil fuels. By 2020, the DOE wants the total cost of solar energy systems to drop by 75% with their installed cost to average about $1 per watt, or 5 to 6 cents per kilowatt hour. While the cost of solar has incrementally decreased over the past 30 years, the SunShot Initiative will also work on lowering the price of solar systems’ permitting and installation. Permitting costs are a particularly huge burden on the installation of solar systems–since a new installation can tack fees of up to $2500 on a solar project, one part of the SunShot program will work on steps such as to digitize and streamline local permitting processes around the country.
By pushing the continued advancement in solar cell technologies, improvement in solar panel manufacturing, and taking steps to reduce the total costs of solar power systems, the DOE’s ambition is to have solar energy compete on its own without any subsidies by 2020.
Some may howl at the US$200 million spent on annual solar technology research, but remember that this program alone is .00005% of the budget. Fossil fuels will continue to rise in price and volatility in the Middle East will not subside anytime soon; SunShot could be a penny-wise investment if it delivers what it promises by 2020.