In the midst of the largest scandal to rock the U.S. solar industry, the Department of Energy is plowing ahead with a series of smaller initiatives that could help sun-fueled electricity compete with conventional energy supplies.
The goal of the DOE's SunShot Initiative is to trim the costs of owning and operating solar systems by 75 percent by 2020. This month, just days after California solar firm Solyndra's collapse sparked criticism of President Obama's clean energy push, the department doled out more than $145 million in grants to nearly 70 advanced solar technology projects.
Most of the SunShot projects are focused on developing nascent solar technologies, improving existing ones or finding better ways to connect solar panels to the grid.
But a handful of recipients are also striving for something less tangible: to break down the bureaucratic barriers that keep homeowners, businesses and utilities from going solar.
Obtaining the paperwork needed for building codes, zoning laws and permitting rules can take solar installers and city officials months to complete, often delaying projects and raising costs. Few permits are offered online, and all those back-and-forth trips on foot to the permitting office can drive up the fees that contractors bill to consumers.
Some local governments have already begun finding ways to cut through the red tape. Thanks in part to their efforts, the price of putting up solar systems—excluding the cost of the panels themselves—fell by nearly 20 percent from 2009 to 2010, according to a Sept. 15 report by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which is managed by the University of California and supported by the DOE.
"If the costs and prices [of solar] are coming down, then it makes it more affordable, and that will only help to accelerate deployment," Galen Barbose, who co-authored the report, told InsideClimate News.
Several of the SunShot projects aim to speed up that process by putting the complex piles of paperwork and project site details at the fingertips of solar installers and officials nationwide.
For instance, a key part of Clean Power Finance's SunShot project is to capture local permitting policies and launch them into the internet era, said Nat Kramer, CEO of the San Francisco firm that provided software services to 40 percent of all U.S. residential solar systems last year. The company also offers financing options that solar installers can offer their customers.
Clean Power Finance is using $3 million from the DOE over three years, matched with its own $1 million investment, to create software that enables city authorities and installers to handle paperwork online. Contractors would be able to print an application from the system and submit it to the permitting office. Once the request is processed, the permitting office could upload an approval instantly—not weeks or months later. The installer could print the permit, head straight to the customer's house or project site and get to work. It's a fairly standard concept for businesses by now, but one that many municipalities, juggling multiple permits from various city and state agencies, have struggled to adopt.
Initially, Clean Power Finance will upload the rules and requirements from its vast customer base. It also hopes to gather than information from the 25 major U.S. cities participating in the DOE’s Solar America Cities program, which supports federal-local partnerships to enable residents and businesses to install solar systems.
Solar developers will be able to log on to Clean Power Finance's database and pull up information from any jurisdiction before they give their customers a cost and time estimate, saving them the expense and trouble of redesigning proposals if it turns out the city requires more than they first realized. City officials can also use the database to learn from other municipalities.
"This is really about building software and a database that will bring the permitting process into the 21st century, accelerate installation and improve customer service,” Kramer said.
The Energy Policy Institute (EPI) at Boise State University also has an innovative database in the works, this one designed for developers of utility-scale solar installations out West. The institute received a $2.8 million SunShot award to duplicate a project-planning tool it had already developed for electricity transmission lines for the solar industry.
The database gathers data from geographic information systems that find potential sites for solar farms based on an area’s physical features and ownership—be it federal, state, tribal or private—plus its natural resources and environmental or wildlife constraints.
What sets it apart from existing planning tools is that it will also gauge how local communities might react to utility-scale solar projects—whether they will reject a plan flat out or have preferences or concerns about a project's location.
"Public opinion is definitely one of the most significant factors" in developing a project, said David Solan, the institute's director. "When projects actually don’t move forward and there are problems because of public opposition, in some cases the developers seem surprised, which they shouldn’t be."
The EPI team is working with the DOE to develop a survey that, with additional funding, could be distributed to a broad range of people nationwide. They'll talk with government officials, developers and environmental groups to find out what held up projects in the past and where residents prefer that projects be located.
The EPI's electricity transmission database currently covers only Idaho but could eventually encompass the rest of the Intermountain West, a region that includes parts of Utah, Nevada, Arizona and Colorado. The institute could initially apply its solar planning tool to that region as well.
"Our [solar] tool is a screening tool that identifies what might be the most optimal sites depending on your criteria, but says 'this particular area of your project might be controversial, so you really need to be working with the public,'" Solan said. "This is sort of helping to speed up the process [early on] and prevent headaches down the road."
Solan said the platform will be offered free to the solar industry and to public officials.
"This is the type of thing that could move solar forward," he said. "We can keep it open for everybody, rather than just benefiting one specific company.
"If we're going to roll out a clean energy economy and increase the amount of electricity we get from renewable energy resources, we really need to take a new look at how infrastructure is sited."