The Energy Department's SunShot Catalyst prize winners are taking aim at solar energy’s “soft costs.” | Photo Courtesy of NREL.

Going solar is a hot topic these days. Who doesn’t like the idea of using clean, affordable energy from the sun to power our homes and businesses?

Solar hardware has gotten cheaper, but purchasing a solar energy system can still be out of reach for some consumers. Today, more than half the total expense comes from things like permits, connection fees and labor. These so-called “soft costs” have remained a stubborn obstacle to affordable solar power for many Americans.

Find a way to cut soft costs, and solar gets a whole lot cheaper.

That’s the big idea behind the SunShot Catalyst prize, an Energy Department-sponsored competition that pits tech startups against some of the toughest challenges facing the solar industry. Last week, SunShot held its first-ever “Catalyst Demo Day” in San Francisco, inviting 17 teams from around the country to pitch their time- and cost-saving solar solutions to a panel of judges for a chance at up to $100,000 in seed funding.

The competitors, many of them new entrepreneurs, tackled community-submitted problems ranging from difficulty finding new solar customers to a lack of standard tools for designing solar projects. At the end of the day, five companies were awarded $30,000 each in startup funding, with the potential to earn an additional $70,000 based on product milestones.


Here’s what the five Catalyst prize winners are working on:

  • Gridmates lets rooftop solar owners help combat energy poverty by sharing their surplus of electricity with those in need of access to modern energy services.
  • PVComplete offers a web-based tool that automates the solar project design process, making it fast and easy to create plans for solar installations.
  • Savenia Solar Ratings helps homeowners, installers and real estate agents calculate the value of home solar energy systems.
  • Solar Site Design connects a wide array of solar industry professionals with potential solar customers.
  • UtilityAPI gives customers faster, more accurate quotes for solar energy systems by providing solar companies with automated access to home energy usage data.

The Energy Department’s SunShot Initiative aims to make solar power cost-competitive with other energy sources across the nation by 2020. By supporting fledgling companies with bright ideas through projects like the Catalyst prize, SunShot is making strides toward its goals of reducing soft costs and making it faster, easier and more affordable for people to access solar power across the nation.

What do you think is the greatest challenge to the growing solar energy market? Submit a “problem statement” today for the next round of the Catalyst prize, and your bright idea could help spark the next great solar energy solution.