How do you measure industry impact? When it comes to the Energy Department’s investment in solar research, the ways -- and the impacts -- are numerous. In 2012, solar energy technologies have continued to advance at a record pace. The solar market is also gaining momentum as evidenced by the latest jobs report from the Solar Foundation, which showed that the solar industry is creating jobs six times faster than the overall job market.

Through the SunShot Initiative, the Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) helps companies overcome both technical and market barriers unique to the energy sector to make solar cost-competitive with non-renewable sources of electricity. For example, San Jose, California-based Solar Junction shattered an existing technical barrier with its commercial-ready SJ3 multijunction solar cell this year. This concentrating photovoltaic (CPV) cell -- which uses a focused lens to magnify light to 418 times the intensity of the sun -- earned an R&D100 Award and set a new world record of 43.5 percent for solar cell conversion efficiency. The technology, funded in part by the SunShot Initiative’s Incubator program, is based on high-efficiency multijunction research pioneered by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). With an innovative design that captures both the high-energy and low-energy ends of the solar spectrum, it has the potential to achieve 50 percent conversion efficiency.

Solar Junction’s SJ3 cell is just one of many efficiency records achieved thanks to the support of the Energy Department. And efficiency is just one of many ways that EERE’s far-reaching impact is measured. Independent analyses detailed in the Retrospective Benefit-Cost Evaluation of DOE Investment in Photovoltaic Energy Systems and Linkages from DOE’s Solar Photovoltaic R&D to Commercial Renewable Power from Solar Energy found that EERE investments brought:

  • Triple Return on Investment: From 1975 to 2008, the Energy Department spent about $2.3 billion on R&D to advance PV technology, with net economic benefits totaling more than $15 billion with a conservatively-estimated 17 percent internal rate of return.
  • 50 Percent Cost Reduction: Since the Energy Department began investing in solar research development and deployment, production costs per watt of photovoltaic (PV) modules fell from more than $100 in the mid-1970s to between $1 and $2 per watt by 2008 with system reliability increasing from 2 to 25 years during this same period.
  • Significant Emission Reduction: About 6.8 million tons of CO2 emissions were avoided, with approximately 1.1 million tons of those emissions directly attributable to EERE’s investments.
  • Knowledge and Technology Transfer: Energy Department support of early solar PV research led to foundational knowledge that drives today’s private sector innovation, including an estimated 274 patent families.
  • Innovation Spillover: Over time, the influence of Energy Department-funded thin film PV research has spread extensively to the broader semiconductor device industry.

Originally funded by the U.S. government in response to disruptions to the nation’s energy supply in the 1970s, solar energy technologies are now providing a reliable source of domestic energy that can improve the nation’s energy security and strengthen U.S. economic competitiveness. EERE’s continued support remains essential for accelerating the development of advanced, low-cost PV modules and fostering a thriving solar industry that can compete in the global clean energy race.