Suniva installation at Grand Valley State University. Photo courtesy of Suniva.

Solar Energy Systems installation, courtesy of Sustainable CUNY

Quality assurance testing at Suniva. Photo courtesy of Suniva.

Quality assurance testing at Suniva. Photo courtesy of Suniva.

Quality assurance testing at Suniva. Photo courtesy of Suniva.

Data sources on display in IBM labs used in IBM's solar forecasting technology (Jon Simon/Feature Photo Service for IBM)

Since 2011, the SunShot Initiative has bolstered the U.S. solar energy industry by funding innovative, cutting-edge technologies that have an immediate, measurable impact on reducing the cost of solar power in an effort to make solar electricity fully cost-competitive with traditional energy sources, without incentives, by 2020. The program funds research, development, demonstration, and deployment projects that help the United States reestablish market leadership while improving energy security, strengthening the economy, and combatting climate change.

Five years into the SunShot Initiative, the solar industry is already 70% of the way to achieving the SunShot goals, but the remaining 30% of this goal represents some of the toughest work ahead.

To chart a path forward for last five years before the 2020 target, the SunShot Initiative created the On the Path to SunShot study series in collaboration with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and with contributions from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories (Sandia), and Argonne National Laboratory. The study focuses on the areas of grid integration, technology improvements, finance and policy evolution, and environmental impacts and considerations. This report series dovetails the 2010 SunShot Vision Study and helps to identify the grid integration challenges, technology improvements, finance and policy evolution, and environmental impacts that the SunShot Initiative will need to consider in its planning as it reaches for the 2020 SunShot goals and beyond.  

Pioneering next era solar technology

For the past 35 years, the Energy Department has funded solar research at the national laboratories, and the SunShot Initiative continues that tradition. The national labs play a central role in developing new technologies, contributing to SunShot’s patents and more than 50% of solar cell efficiency world records.

In order to accelerate the commercialization of new products and build investor confidence in emerging technologies, SunShot created the Regional Test Center program. Managed by Sandia and NREL, the five test centers across the country help U.S. solar companies conduct rigorous module performance tests and make sure American products stack up against international competitors.  

SunShot is also pioneering concentrating solar power (CSP) research, exploring ways to make this technology a feasible and accessible option for large-scale electricity generation, as well as for emerging small scale uses like industrial process heat. The molten salt used in commercially available CSP receivers reach temperatures from 500°C to 600°C. But a project at Sandia’s National Solar Thermal Test Facility used particles called proppants that have the potential to reach temperatures as high as 840°C, paving the way for higher efficiencies and allowing stored sunlight to produce power even when the sun isn’t shining.

Jumpstarting the economy through American ingenuity

For small businesses, SunShot’s Incubator program helps to mature early-stage technologies and ready them for commercialization and additional private investments. For every $1 in government investment in SunShot Incubator, those companies have earned more than $22 in private follow-on funding. Some of the industry’s most innovative companies – like 1366 Technologies, SunPower, and EnergySage – all got a boost from SunShot’s Incubator program.

SunShot’s work in this area has even helped to reverse a decade-long trend of decline in U.S. photovoltaic (PV) manufacturing, adding thousands of new living wage solar jobs. In part thanks to key investments from SunShot, U.S. solar panel manufacturer Suniva plans to build a new facility that will bring up to 500 new jobs to Georgia, while partners Silevo and SolarCity are almost done building the western hemisphere’s largest module factory and are estimated to bring 3,000 jobs to western New York and an additional 2,000 jobs throughout the state. 1366 Technologies – a company the Energy Department has supported since 2008 – will expand its manufacturing operations and bring 1,000 new jobs to upstate New York. The company’s kerfless wafering process has driven down the cost of manufacturing of a silicon wafer by 50% and because it only takes seconds to make compared to alternatives, is now the industry standard.

SunShot’s approach to supporting new businesses and technologies leads to real world impacts, creating new businesses and boosting local economies with quality solar jobs.

Challenging conventions, changing perspectives on how solar is used

Looking ahead, one of SunShot’s biggest challenges is ensuring that solar technology can be simply and efficiently added to the electric grid and can provide power at all hours of the day. To prepare for higher penetrations of solar on the grid, SunShot develops new and innovative technical solutions and regulatory approaches to grid integration, partnering with universities, utilities, and the private sector to ensure that solar is adequately and accurately valued.

SunShot-funded research at Sandia and NREL underpinned a year-long, industry wide effort to allow small wholesale energy projects to qualify for a cheaper and quicker fast track process, dramatically changing how solar customers get their systems online. This research led to a victory  at Federal Energy Regulatory Commission when it implemented the Small Generator Interconnection Procedures.

Another interconnection project funded by SunShot featured a partnership between NREL, Hawaiian Electric Company, and SolarCity. Together, the group tested advanced inverters at high-penetration scenarios to help Hawaiian Electric’s power grid better respond to electrical disturbances. As a result, Hawaiian Electric was able to clear its interconnection backlog, connecting more than 2,500 solar systems to the grid.

SunShot has also been involved in new approaches and innovative ways to safely and quickly connect more solar systems to the grid. From supporting the invention of a do-it-yourself solar installation kit that self-tests and communicates with the utility company, to supporting projects that use machine learning to advance solar forecasting, SunShot is helping utilities and electric system operators balance the grid and prepare for 24 hours of solar.

Inspiring industry collaboration and engagement to reduce soft costs

Even with all of these technical advances, soft costs – the non-hardware input costs of going solar – persist and inflate the price of a solar system. From workforce training initiatives like GEARED and Solar Ready Vets, to the use of data analytics and award-winning prize competitions, SunShot uses a multifaceted approach to tackling soft costs.

Rooftop Solar Challenge 2 brought together a variety of stakeholders and challenged them to work together to standardize permitting and interconnection processes, facilitate easy and cheap group purchasing, and create online applications to make going solar faster, easier, and more affordable. By streamlining local interconnection processes, the NYSolar Smart team helped New York City to surpass half a gigawatt of installed solar capacity, while the Solar Ready II team developed best practices that are expected to create 4 megawatts of new solar installations and save more than $1,000 on each installed system. Similarly, thanks to a SunShot-funded National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) project, solar is also growing in rural areas across the country. NRECA worked alongside 14 rural electric cooperative to develop and deploy a ready-to-use set of standard engineering designs, financing models, and tools to help electric cooperatives reduce solar adoption costs and navigate the many ways in which they can integrate solar into their asset portfolios.

By inspiring unlikely partnerships, encouraging team work, and challenging its awardees to maintain laser-like focus on its 2020 targets, SunShot supports well-rounded solutions that address stakeholder needs and bring clarity to the going solar process. In addition, SunShot encourages awardees to create replicable, field-tested solutions, empowering jurisdictions across the country to recreate their results and introduce solar to thousands of Americans for the first time.

For the past five years, SunShot has challenged the solar industry to make leaps in how we understand and deploy solar power today. Through a unique blend of competitive funding, collaboration, and guidance, the SunShot’s Initiative’s work has helped to lay the foundation for ever-increasing solar penetration levels on our nation’s electric grid, at costs lower than ever before.

To learn more about the SunShot Initiative’s historic progress and the challenges and opportunities ahead of its 2020 goals, read the On the Path to SunShot study series.