PV Solar Hits 2020 Cost Objectives, Given Back Seat to Concentrated Solar Power

David Fessler By David Fessler
Energy and Infrastructure Strategist, The Oxford Club

Alternative Energy

Back in 2011, the Department of Energy (DOE) launched the SunShot Initiative. The objective of SunShot was to bring down the cost of solar photovoltaic (PV) energy, including the cost of solar cells and their installation. For this initiative, the DOE awarded $27 million to nine separate projects.

Fast-forward to September 2017. DOE research published last month showed that the solar industry has achieved the SunShot goals for utility-scale solar PV – a full three years early.

I’m not surprised. As my Second Law of Technology states: “Technological changes happen much faster than anyone expects they will.”

Here are the original 2011 cost targets…

  • $0.06 per kilowatt-hour (KWh) for utility-scale PV
  • $0.08 per KWh for commercial PV
  • $0.10 per KWh for residential PV.

How did the industry reach the utility-scale target so fast? Simple.

Over the last six years, we’ve seen huge declines in solar PV panel costs. The price of inverters and racking has decreased too. Solar PV currently provides about 1.5% of all electricity in the U.S.

SunShot’s success in reducing the costs of PV energy has phenomenal. That’s why I’m scratching my head about the DOE’s recent change of direction.

In September, the DOE announced a new, expanded SunShot 2030 program that will award $82 million for research in two new areas.

According to Daniel Simmons, acting assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy, the DOE will focus on “strengthening the reliability and resilience of the electric grid while integrating solar energy.”

More specifically, the initiative will focus on concentrated solar power (CSP) and solar PV power control electronics. CSP systems use large mirror arrays to focus and concentrate solar energy onto a central boiler.

CSP research and development will receive $62 million. The power control electronics sector will get the remaining $20 million. That will shift funds away from solar PV research.

Here is an overhead image of the 4,000-acre CSP project at the Ivanpah Solar Electric facility in California’s Mojave Desert…

In a CSP system, the sun’s energy heats water and converts it to steam. The high-pressure steam spins a turbine connected to a generator to produce power.

Insulated tanks can store some of the heat. The system uses that heat to produce power later in the day or when the sun isn’t shining.

That’s CSP’s big advantage over solar PV. A solar PV system has no way to store energy. External battery storage can be added. But that costs extra.

Yet PV systems still hold enormous promise and merit significant support.

So what’s the real reason the DOE is cutting solar PV funding? There are suspicions that Secretary of Energy Rick Perry might want to cut it as a result of the White House’s 2018 budget proposal.

That proposal slashes funding for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy by 70%. It happens to be the same office overseeing the SunShot program.

So far, Congress has resisted nearly all the planned cuts to DOE research programs.

CSP’s downside is that it is more expensive to build. And so far, CSP has been technically challenging.

With the DOE’s help, solar PV costs have dropped significantly. And increased adoption has spurred a number of technological advances.

A decade ago, U.S. solar installations stood at 1.1 gigawatts (GW). By the end of 2017, we’ll likely hit 47.1 GW.

That’s enough to light up 9.1 million American homes and save millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

With the technical challenges that CSP has yet to overcome, perhaps Congress should consider continued funding for solar PV research…

To a sustainable future,

Dave