The U.S. Department of Energy has launched a five year, $25 million “Plug and Play” photovoltaic research program that aims to make investing in residential solar power as simple as buying a new home computer. The new initiative, inspired by the ease with which households have adopted personal Internet-connected electronic devices, would enable a consumer to purchase solar equipment off the shelf, plug it into a dedicated circuit, and automatically establish a connection with their local utility.
The connection would enable consumers to sell excess power back to their utility, among other smart-grid capabilities. Though the program is aimed at the residential market, the benefits could easily ripple into the small business sector, making it possible for property owners to squeeze some extra income out of their real estate.
The key to low cost solar power
The main driver behind the Plug and Play program is the need to lower the total cost of installing solar systems, including permitting processes, mounting equipment, grid connection, inspection and certification.
According to the Department of Energy, for a typical solar installation these “soft” expenses add up to more than the cost of the solar panels themselves, often running into the thousands of dollars.
The result is that even as the cost of new photovoltaic technology has been dropping, soft expenses are not budging. That imbalance has created a significant, long term obstacle to the adoption of solar equipment in the mass market.
Federal funding to break the solar power logjam
Recognizing the need to address soft costs in the solar power market, last November DOE launched a $7 million round of funding for projects that will help bring down soft costs, under the SunShot Initiative.
Modeled on the all-out Moon Shot program that quickly vaulted the U.S. over Russia in the race to put a human on the moon a generation ago, SunShot was launched last year with the goal of lowering the total cost of installed solar energy to $1.50 per watt by 2020.
At that price, solar power would compete on an equal or better footing than electricity practically anywhere in the U.S., even without subsidies.
A vision for plug and play solar power
Plug and Play takes it a step farther by wrapping soft costs into one tidy little package. As envisioned by DOE, the ideal Plug and Play system is:
“…a commercial, off-the-shelf system that is fully inclusive with little need for individual customization. Any homeowner/consumer can buy and install (or have a contractor install) the system without the need for special training or specialized tools. The homeowner plugs the system into a “PV-ready” circuit and an automatic PV discovery process initiates communication between the system and the utility. The system and the interface to the grid are automatically configured for optimal operation.”
To realize that vision, DOE is looking for transformational approaches that involve a top to bottom overhaul of the interplay between consumers, utilities and residential power generation.
Somewhat poetically, DOE describes the solar powered home of the future as being “enabled through elegant system design, which eliminates expensive and redundant business processes. In this broader context, smart means that the hardware and infrastructure automatically communicate and react. The Plug and Play vision is to leapfrog over today’s non-hardware and hardware obstacles with an intelligent systems approach.”
The ideal of a solar chicken in every pot has its limitations, though. Foremost among these is the availability of sufficient sunlight to any given “pot,” along with some assurance that your neighbor’s seedlings won’t someday grow to overshadow your roof.
The Plug and Play initiative may also face some internal obstacles. For this year, DOE is only seeking $5 million of its $25 million funding goal, and plans to request the balance from Congress next year.
In other words, if this kind of public investment sounds like good public policy to you, it's time to contact your U.S. representative and let them know.
Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.