The Department of Energy's new SunShot Initiative to make solar energy as cheap as coal has given fresh hope to industry enthusiasts. And it may even give life to a nearly dead effort in Congress to put solar panels and water heaters on 10 million of America's roofs by 2020.
The 2010 legislation by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) hasn't had much momentum since the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved it in July, and November's Republican gains in Congress has not helped the measure along. But experts say Energy Secretary Steven Chu's SunShot Initiative may give the Ten Million Solar Roof Act new political legs.
Shayle Kann, managing director of solar research at GTM Research, said that the DOE plan could make the Sanders' bill more politically palatable, because it would drive down the cost of solar installations. The legislation aims to finance the installation of up to 40,000 megawatts of new solar energy.
"These are two parallel but distinct programs. They could play together very well because — to the extent that the SunShot initiative is successful — it will lower the [financial] incentives that are required per project for the Ten Million Solar Roof Act," he told SolveClimate News.
"Any program designed at reducing the cost of solar installations will be a service to any deployment program by lowering costs" to the government, Kann said.
Jared Blanton, a spokesperson for the national Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), said that the solar energy plans are aligned because "they both are focused on removing needless regulatory barriers that prevent Americans from going solar."
The DOE initiative unveiled on Feb. 4 aims to accelerate research and development in its solar energy programs — valued at around $200 million annually — to reduce the total installed cost of solar electricity to $1 per watt by 2020, a 75 percent drop from today's rates.
The idea is that unsubsidized solar power could then compete with the wholesale rate of electricity generated by fossil fuels that emit climate-changing greenhouse gases.
As part of the program, the agency also awarded $27 million to nine solar technology companies that are trying to make solar more affordable.
"Magic will occur when [solar] becomes cost-competitive with any form of energy," Chu said at a Feb. 9 renewable-energy conference in Washington. "And when that happens without subsidies, it is going to shoot all over the country and all over the world."
'SunShot' Puts New Energy Into Solar Bill
SunShot, a name inspired by President John F. Kennedy's 1960s "moon shot" goal, will work with government agencies, the energy industry and research laboratories to reduce installation costs, spur growth in the solar energy market and pave the way for new U.S. manufacturing.
The initiative offers Sanders a chance to breathe new life into his bill after it was approved by the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee last year. The senator sits on that committee and the Environment and Public Works Committee, and he also chairs a green jobs subcommittee. The legislation has 16 co-sponsors — all Democrats.
"I look forward to working with the Obama administration to incorporate elements of the new solar initiative into the Ten Million Solar Roofs Act to make the legislation even stronger," Sanders said in a Feb. 4 press release. "We have an opportunity to create hundreds of thousands of good-paying jobs and make America the world leader in solar energy."
During his State of the Union address last month, President Obama proposed building 20 million solar installations nationwide by 2020 — double the target of Sanders' initiative — although the SunShot doesn't address that goal and Kann said the president's speech was void of the nuts and bolts of policies to get there.
The Ten Million Solar Roofs Act would require $250 million in investments in fiscal year 2012 and an additional $500 million per year from 2013 to 2021. A competitive grant program would help state and local governments boost solar energy deployment in homes, schools and businesses by overcoming barriers such as high expenses and red tape.
By linking his bill with SunShot, and positioning the act as an integral part of the cost-cutting initiative, Sanders is hoping to win new support in Congress. Congressman Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) introduced companion legislation last session in the House, and is expected to do the same this year.
Cutting Government 'Green' Tape
Will Wiquist, a spokesperson for Sanders, told SolveClimate News that the senator's legislation would potentially adapt to include SunShot's focus on creating a more efficient solar-permitting process for home installations.
He cited a January report by solar financing company SunRun, which estimates that local inspection and permitting fees can add up to $2,500 to the cost of each residential photovoltaic (PV) solar system.
"The solar industry report recommended a competitive grant program to encourage adoption of best practices, an idea which can be incorporated into the Ten Million Solar Roofs legislation to support Secretary Chu's goal of making solar competitive with fossil fuels by the end of the decade," Wiquist said.
Kann said that SunShot is likely to receive a more immediate push from the Obama administration because it is a DOE initiative, whereas the Ten Million Solar Roofs legislation could be slow to wend its way through Congress.
However, he added, SunShot alone cannot achieve its target of reducing solar electricity costs by 75 percent.
"You can't just do it with one program, especially when that one program is designed heavily around R&D. There has to be some kind of deployment program as well, whether it is the Ten Million Solar Roofs Act or something similar," he said.
According to SEIA figures, the U.S. placed fourth in solar PV installations in 2009, behind Germany, Italy, and Japan. The country produces 6 percent of solar system components worldwide, while China accounts for seven of the top 10 solar manufacturers worldwide.