Reaching for the Sun with Steven Chu


PV Solar Report Contributor

Rosana Francescato

reachsunWhy reach for the moon, when we can go for the sun? That’s what Energy Secretary Steven Chu aimed for in 2011, when he launched the SunShot Initiative to improve solar technologies and reduce costs. The program’s goal: to make solar competitive with any other power source — without subsidies.

So far, it seems the sun was not too lofty a target. Chu may be stepping down as Energy Secretary, but he’s leaving on a high note with great hopes for the future. At a recent Google Hangout on the solar industry, he expressed his excitement about the present and future of solar and his conviction that solar is close to being as cheap as any other power source: “This is not something that’s going to happen twenty to thirty years from today. This is going to happen ten years from today, maybe sooner.”

At the Hangout, Chu and panelists from the solar industry provided plenty of reasons to feel good about solar’s future. They pointed to improvements on the technological front, such as increases in the efficiency, reliability, and longevity of systems — similar to what we’ve seen happen with computers. What to expect for the future: at least a decade of continued improvements. And within that decade, Chu aims for the U.S. to be a world leader in R&D, deployment, and manufacture of solar products.

But there’s a lot more to what’s happening than just technological improvements. An important part of the SunShot Initiative is tackling “soft costs,” such as financing and permitting — or as Chu puts it, the “red tape and hassle factor.” Because of drops in hardware prices, those soft costs now make up more than half the cost of installing solar.

We’re already seeing progress.

In 2004, the fully installed cost of utility-scale solar (which includes all hardware and installation costs) came to about $8 per watt — now it’s below $3, in some cases even as low as $2. ShunShot’s ambitious $1 goal is looking within reach!

SunShot programs like the one in Broward County, Florida, are part of that effort. Panelists from the program shared how helpful it’s been to implement a single portal for permit applications, and ensure inspectors receive consistent training. Other counties are expressing interest, so they hope the program will spread throughout the state.

That points to an important trend: each success that proves the viability of solar paves the way for more solar. A great example is that solar has become more “bankable,” even Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway are seeing they can make money — so naturally, they’re getting in on the action. MLPs and crowdfunding are other important parts of the financial picture and are allowing many more people to help fund — and benefit from — solar. These options are popular: Mosaic’s first publicly crowdfunded projects sold out in less than 24 hours.

Many of these financing vehicles are relative newcomers, and that’s key when it comes to solar. As we deal with new situations like distributed power generation and increases in our ability to store power, we need to think in new ways. Secretary Chu urged the Hangout audience, as we look to spread solar power, to come up with new models.

And he’s been doing his part. It’s a shame to see such a strong proponent of solar step down from his position, but he’s already done a lot to lead the solar industry to a bright future. So let’s carry on the great work, and keep reaching for the sun!

This post was originally published on Mosaic.