Plug and Play Solar: A Framework to Dramatically Decrease Solar Soft Costs

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Solar costs continue to decline, but little progress has been made to reduce soft costs. Dr. Christian Hoepfner discusses his research to simplify solar installations at this year’s Intersolar North America. 

At Intersolar North America this year, one of the unexpectedly interesting talks I attended was entitled Plug and Play Systems for Residential Rooftops. This probably sounds to most people like a bit of a gimmick. After all, plug and play solar panels have been around for a long time but have never been widely used. Realistically, one solar panel is not going to dramatically reduce anyone’s electricity bill.

The title of this talk was somewhat deceiving, though. What was actually focused on was how to reduce the soft costs associated with solar. In particular, a report by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory was discussed, which noted that while hardware costs in the United States have dropped substantially since 2008, the soft costs have not.

As many know, the United States has not kept pace with countries like Germany, where the cost of solar is much lower. With the Sunshot Initiative, the Department of Energy is looking to catch us up. The Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems was one of the organizations to receive funding from the initiative, and has been researching methods for reducing soft costs.

Dr. Christian Hoepfner, Director of the Fraunhofer Center, outlined the plug and play system. The main idea is straightforward: it involves simplifying the installation process to the point where a system can be installed and connected in less than 10 hours and cost less than $2.00 per watt.

A number of ideas are being researched that will make installation simpler and faster. They include:

  • Prefabricated cables and connectors
  • Self-testing capabilities built into the system
  • Self-reporting capabilities to bring the system online
  • Lightweight panels that can be installed with adhesive mounting and don’t require grounding

One of the key points Dr. Hoepfner mentioned was that this is designed to be a framework that will allow companies to customize their installation to best meet their needs. To me, this is what makes the idea great. Installers will not need to rely on a specific product or technology and can essentially pick and choose what to use for their system.

Dr Hoepfner did argue for a standardized meter collar, which will report the system’s self-testing to the grid and bring it online with no need for a utility worker to come to the site. This collar would need to be installed by an electrician, but the rest of the system could ultimately be installed by a skilled DIYer. This isn’t to say that this idea would hurt installers, though. If we look at general home construction, for example, it can be done by the homeowner as well, but a very small percentage of people actually do this.

Ultimately, this system benefits all parties involved. By simplifying the installation process, it lets installers completely install and bring a system online in a single day. It would also benefit consumers by reducing the upfront cost and speeding up installation. Finally, utilities could bring systems online more easily and would have access to additional information on installed systems.