Barely three years ago, the Obama administration launched the SunShot 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 the average 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 help lower 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
The Moniz announcement coincided with the official dedication of the massive new Ivanpah concentrating solar power plant in California. Another new utility-scale solar project, Crescent Dunes in Nevada, was recently completed and passed a major milestone last week on its pathway to full commissioning.
The two projects are significant not only because of their size, but also because they represent another critical area of competition for the U.S. energy sector, and that is the ability to compete in global markets. Both of the projects represent next-generation solar technologies.
Ivanpah is the largest solar power plant of its kind in the world. It consists of three units, each of which concentrates solar energy from a field of specialized mirrors called heliostats onto a central tower, where it heats a solution of molten salt. The heated molten salt provides thermal energy to produce steam for running a generator, employing an advanced process that uses 95 percent less water than similar solar power plants.
Crescent Dunes also runs its generators on heated molten salt, with solar energy concentrated by heliostats. In this project, the molten salt also serves double duty as a “salt battery,” storing thermal energy for about six hours. That means the plant can continue to generate electricity long after the sun goes down.
Together, these two plants will provide enough electricity for thousands of homes, without ever needing to dig raw feedstock out of the ground.
As with any large piece of infrastructure, solar plants (and wind farms, for that matter) are not impact-free, but once they are in the ground they are free of impacts related to fuel harvesting and, for that matter, transportation. They are also free of impacts from byproduct disposal, such as coal ash and petcoke.
Contrast that with the steady stream of disasters related to the fossil fuel lifecycle just within the last few weeks, including the coal-washing chemical spill and the coal slurry spill in West Virginia, the North Carolina coal ash spill (which appears to involve a second pipe now), and the Kentucky gas pipeline explosion, and you’ve got a picture of a fossil fuel infrastructure bent to the breaking point.
Image: Crescent Dunes concentrating solar power plant courtesy of SolarReserve