This summary of the Soft Costs portion of the 2022 Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) Peer Review covers discussions between reviewers and their discussions with SETO’s awardees. See descriptions of all Soft Costs projects that were analyzed as part of this review.

The first section covers the overall Soft Costs review, taking all projects into account. The subsequent sections cover specific topics within the Soft Costs portfolio.

The following reviewers participated in the Soft Costs portion of the Peer Review:

  • Tria Case (Chair, author of the Soft Costs Overall Portfolio Review section)
  • John Baras (Lead Reviewer, author of the Data, Analysis, and Tools Portfolio Review section)
  • Ron Reisman (Lead Reviewer, author of the Permitting, Inspection, and Interconnection Portfolio Review section)
  • Matt Russotti (Lead Reviewer, author of the Solar Access Portfolio Review section)
  • Jan Peter Kleissl (Lead Reviewer, author of the Solar Siting and the Environment Portfolio Review section)
  • Danielle Murray (Lead Reviewer, author of the Workforce Portfolio Review section)
  • Jill Cliburn
  • Floyd DesChamps
  • Ronald DiFelice
  • Michael Giesselmann
  • Nico Hotz
  • Harish Sarma Krishnamoorthy
  • Chengzong Pang
  • Quinn Qiao
  • Igor Tyukhov
  • David T. Williams

Soft Costs Overall Portfolio Review

Goals and Strategy

The Soft Costs track focuses on reducing the non-hardware costs of solar electricity. The projects in this track encompass a broad array of subject areas that include workforce, permitting and interconnection, solar siting and the environment, solar access, and data analysis and tools. While some projects reviewed were in early stages of implementation, the reviewers indicated that the strategies employed were appropriate to advancing the goals of the Soft Cost track. The goals of the Soft Costs track include lowering the cost of electricity from photovoltaic (PV) systems, growing the solar industry, reducing the lifecycle impact of solar, opening new markets, and ensuring solar energy benefits all while working toward greater diversity and gender representation to ensure a just and clean energy transition. 

There were 63 projects reviewed with an investment of approximately $103 million. The projects were implemented by a diverse set of entities, including both for -and not-for-profit entities, academic institutions, and national labs. Reviewers agreed that the projects had strong alignments with SETO objectives and provided a broad set of workable solutions to address barriers and to meet goals.

Alignment with Goals

The reviewers in the topic areas were in general agreement that the projects selected and managed under the Soft Costs track aligned well with the goals and strategies of SETO. The opportunity to reduce soft costs across all installation market segments remains viable, particularly for the non-utility scale systems where soft costs are reported by DOE to be as much as 65%. Each topic area includes projects that have demonstrated incremental successes at making progress towards achieving the goals established by SETO. Implementations range from exploring opportunities for co-locating PV with agriculture, to expediting interconnection by creating hosting capacity maps. The projects selected by SETO balance investments supporting equality of access to PV, as well as identifying elements that will improve the ability to co-locate PV with other technologies and appropriate agrivoltaic solutions. Reviewers noted that key to effective implementation of the strategies and dissemination of learnings is communication with a broad array of stakeholders to ensure mutual understanding of goals and objectives.

Funding and Resource Allocation

The Soft Costs track requires interventions with existing agencies and community behaviors with a different set of actions than technology development and include engagement with a broader community who share control of the means and methods needed for success. Impacting soft costs inherently involves designing interventions that require the cooperation of individuals and organizations with responsibilities that are varied, from grid safety to financial viability. Consequently, the investments in the Soft Cost track should reflect this people intensive work. The Soft Cost track represents approximately 20% of all the projects reviewed, but only 14% of the allocated funding. In as much as the soft costs represent such a large percentage of commercial and residential projects, reviewers suggest that SETO consider increasing the funding allocated for this track and in particular topic areas. Given the increase in data-based methods and analytics, one reviewer suggested that SETO should consider increasing the funding and number of projects in this topic. Other recommendations included shifting allocations from hardware tracks when hardware cost goals are met and because the Soft Cost track requires increased investment in innovation and training a diverse workforce across a broad portfolio and stakeholder community.

(Note from SETO: Congress determines SETO’s subprogram budgets.)

Technical Diversity

Reviewers identified several enhancements that would lead to greater technical diversity in the Soft Cost track. Among the suggestions, in the topic area of Permitting, Inspection and Interconnection, it was noted that there are only a few projects dealing directly with interconnection. Further investment is warranted because interconnection costs can lead to abandonment of projects faced with costly network upgrades and can waste significant time. While education and training of code officials and beyond entry level positions was valued, reviewers indicated that attention should be paid to avoiding funding duplicative projects. Reviewers also discussed the need for long-term impact analysis and suggested that future solicitations should include follow-on measurements of the impact on the market after project implementations.

Advancing the Mission

The scope of the soft costs projects is sufficiently broad and serve the interests of the solar industry and the American people. The value of a SETO investment in a particular project that serves a unique geographic community with a goal of ensuring solar access for all must be weighed against investments that have greater replicability. While the value propositions of the projects differ, they promote investments that strive to serve all Americans. Ultimately, the funded projects support expansion of the opportunities for solar participation from many demographics and in varied environments. Reviewers note that any expansion of the market allows for increased business opportunities across the continuum of the solar industry including developers, manufacturers, and investors. In addition, reviewers acknowledged the need for a strong domestic industry and workforce, suggesting that SETO focus on projects with concrete results.

Areas of Improvement

The SETO projects in the Soft Cost track cover a wide range of targets for improvement. This broad spectrum of projects helps to ensure that multiple areas for action are addressed. Reviewers noted that a tighter definition of success and ability to identify the actual market impacts of deliverables would be beneficial. Future funding focused on post-project market impacts would provide visibility into the effectiveness of specific interventions and their impact on the SETO goals. One reviewer suggested that innovations from machine learning and additional tools to analyze data, including the causal relationships, be explored. Reviewers noted that the addition of the JEDI review will serve to mitigate any blind spots related to justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Utilities often play a key role in facilitating the viability of project results through their investments in their internal systems and staff to provide greater transparency and support for consumers. As noted by a reviewer, the relationship with utilities is fundamental to the ongoing administration of community shared solar projects. Increased investment by SETO in exploring utility/developer/consumer collaboration would support greater market growth.

Stakeholder Engagement

The representation on projects included an impressive cross-section of stakeholders from academic institutions, CBOs, and regulators. The project teams are well networked and engaged in their communities with coherent strategies for dissemination and communication. The Soft Cost track projects are structured to ensure input from a broad stakeholder community. One enhancement recommended is to include stakeholders at the local level, including homeowner associations, businesses, and consumers. It was also noted that future projects in the topic area of Access could have greater impact if utilities and unions were more actively engaged, given their role in effecting project success and ongoing employment.

Final Feedback

Finding ways to track outcomes and course correct interventions: There is a theoretical value to projects, that when completed, provide specific answers to questions so that no follow-on funding is required. However, with respect to projects with a strong workforce development component, it is valuable to conduct post implementation surveys one or more years out to discover whether participants stayed in the industry and/or progressed to better paying solar jobs.

Impressive range of projects addressing critical issues: SETO has properly determined that a broad array of projects will better inform and stimulate the solar industry. Focusing on a narrow band might lead to improved activity in a finite area, but the solar industry soft cost reduction targets are sufficiently broad to afford many opportunities to gain efficiencies across categories.
 
Investment in Access is important, and the addition of JEDI will help ensure consideration of these goals across all topics: Investing in the Access category is timely and appropriately focused on ensuring that both the jobs and the power generated from solar is equitably distributed across populations, particularly among those communities that have been historically underrepresented and underserved.


Data, Analysis, and Tools Portfolio Review

Goals and Strategy

The past decade has been one of tremendous change and innovation in the solar industry and, indeed, the whole electricity sector. The share of electricity produced by renewables and natural gas has almost doubled, with solar’s share increasing more than 30-fold to reach 3% today. Yet an even greater rate of change and innovation is needed to reach the current ambitious goal to decarbonize our electricity grid by 2035. For solar technology, this likely means providing 30%-50% of electricity, with as much as a terawatt of solar capacity by 2035. The solar industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the United States. From reports and data from NREL, solar soft costs are increasing over time and currently (2021 data) range from 36% (utility scale) to 65% (residential PV) of total cost, with soft costs for commercial rooftop PV at 57% of total cost. Reducing soft costs is key to reaching SETO’s 2030 cost goals, which in turn is essential for reaching the overall SETO photovoltaic goals for 2030.

(Note from SETO: Soft costs have decreased in the past 10 years, but not as fast as hardware cost reductions.)

The projects in the Data, Analysis, and Tools topic area collect and develop data, analysis, models, and user tools to help solar stakeholders overcome a range of barriers to solar development. There are 14 projects in this topic area out of 63 projects in the Soft Cost portfolio. The funding allocated to these projects is $16M (approximately) out of a total investment of $118M (approximately) in the total Soft Cost portfolio. The areas of focus are as follows:

  • Data Resources & Management: Open Energy Data Initiative (big data lakes); O&M field data in climate zones; Data standards and multi-DER evaluation for resilience planning tech optimization/adoption models; technology integration cost and optimization (REopt, SAM); simulation tools for scheduling solar plus storage power plants; customer adoption model (dGen).
  • Solar Market Analysis: national solar market data collection and trends analysis; Southeast solar plus storage planning; EE plus PV plus storage metrics and analytics.
  • Social Science Analysis: co-adoption of solar plus storage, EVs and EE; knowledge flow of solar energy; solar cybersecurity learning via public-private institutional engagements.

There has been substantial effort and assistance towards enhancing stakeholder engagement. The SETO strategy is appropriate, although it is recommended that participation of and feedback from stakeholders at the local level (i.e., homeowners associations, community associations, end users (homeowners and businesses)) be increased substantially.

Alignment with Goals

The projects under this topic align well with SETO’s defined goals and strategy and will impact significantly SETO’s mission of improving the affordability, reliability, and domestic benefit of solar technologies on the grid.

Funding and Resource Allocation

SETO-funded soft costs projects work to increase solar affordability and expand the market through technological, operational, finance, and business model innovations. Clearly, properly collected and validated data, models, and analytics are crucial and instrumental in achieving SETO’s goals in a robust and sustainable manner. An important challenge that needs to be addressed is the dissemination process and model for such data, models, and analytics. The difficulty often emerges from proprietary claims and IP ownership claims. Similarly, another challenge that needs to be addressed is the integration of widely disseminated data, models, and analytics with those held by private providers or organizations. Appropriately maintained data, models and analytics have tremendous training and educational value for both providers and consumers of solar energy. Given the recent explosion in data-based methods and analytics, SETO should consider increasing the funding and number of projects in this topic to efficiently address these challenges and opportunities.

Technical Diversity

The projects under this topic are diverse, and include rooftop photovoltaics and electric vehicle co-adoption, protection from cybersecurity attacks, to resilient planning and operations-management-maintenance, solar PV and energy storage systems, distribution energy efficiency, provision of resilient back-up power, capability tools to quantify the resilience value and cost back-up power systems supported by solar and other technologies, focused studies in geographical areas to investigate reserve margins and their dependencies on market design and mix of generation. Their overall diversity is adequate.

Reviewers did not identify any of the projects as clearly superior or inferior and felt that the majority of the projects under this topic were well designed and would contribute to advancing the solar industry. Overall, each project is playing an important role in achieving the goals of increased solar energy use, though some projects take more innovative approaches than others.

The areas of validation, integration, and dissemination of data, models and analytics are underrepresented. If properly developed, they could benefit all projects in this topic area and SETO’s overall goal and objectives.

Advancing the Mission

Reviewers believe the majority of the projects in this topic area are consistent with SETO’s goals and will contribute to a robust solar industry. The value propositions of the projects differ in magnitude.
A project is focused on broadly surveying customer attitudes and preferences for adopting solar PV and Electric Vehicles (EVs), which is addressing the important question regarding whether residential customers have a good understanding of the capabilities of rooftop PV and integrated storage, especially as a source of backup power. Such data are badly needed. Another project investigates operation and management costs, which are significant, and it is important to also focus in this area to make PV systems more viable in the future. These bring to the fore the challenge on how to protect and honor the privacy agreements that may underlie such data collection. This issue is essential in building industry acceptance of findings and recommending action steps. This challenge arises frequently nowadays in work with the competitive solar private sector.

Another project addresses the critical need for modeling and forecasting in solar-plus-storage hybrid energy systems for longer durations than the current cycles. The project will develop and disseminate new methodologies for more accurately representing commitment and dispatch decision-making under realistic near-and mid-term forecast uncertainty at high VRE penetrations and determine metrics for valuing trade-offs in future value of charging and discharging energy-limited resources with storage durations of 8-24 hours. How to share such methods and tools across a competitive industry is a challenge.

Another project investigates how patterns of adoption vary across different states, with different regulatory environments and markets. It would be of interest to extract best practices for certain customer segments from such data.

Areas of Improvement

The reliability and resiliency of the proposed hybrid systems need to be investigated and validated more intensively. It is relevant in almost all projects but not properly addressed. It is important to investigate more how reliability is valued by the residential and commercial sectors. It appears this will be critical to understanding benefit/cost to the customer.

Dissemination of data, models, and analytics, while preserving private agreements, needs to be investigated. For example, it is desirable to disseminate the results on the NREL's PVWatts® Calculator website. What would be the constraints? These data, models, analytics, involve more than technological issues. They involve regulatory and political issues, and consequently are likely to be contested and debated. Transparency, study independence, ability to defend, robustness of assumptions that go into the data collection, model and analytics development are going to be key.

Estimation (and forecasting) methods undertaken are mostly traditional and need to progress to more recent methods that can improve accuracy and scalability, especially by incorporating more advanced methods from machine learning (ML). Similarly, ML methods should be investigated to enhance identification and clustering of user behaviors, adoption patterns.

Projects need to include causal analysis methods and systems engineering methods in order to reveal cause-effect relationships in adoption patterns vs. technologies vs. regions vs. human behaviors and decision making.

More work needs to be done regarding the UPVS aspect involving energy storage. Energy storage can significantly alter the utilization of PV systems in the long term; hence O&M costs are bound to have a large variation then, but such research will take more time since grid energy storage is just getting more popular.

Cybersecurity is a critical area. Details of cybersecurity processes, software-based, hardware-based, integration, need to be investigated in much greater depth and breadth. Most importantly composition of various security methods and tools used by the various partners and associated validation and verification methods and tools need to be developed and disseminated.

Stakeholder Engagement

There is generally good and appropriate engagement of stakeholders in the projects under this topic. Some suggestions for improvement:

  • Enrich the stakeholders by including SEIA and state solar industry associations, new construction and roof-replacement trade groups, local planning agencies that represent permitting and inspections, workforce training organizations, representatives of end users and homeowners associations/communities, and representatives for economically disadvantaged communities.
  • Much better and richer interaction and feedback is needed from stakeholders at higher levels of the stakeholder hierarchy including market operators, balancing authorities, PV plant owners and operators, ancillary service markets, regulators, policymakers, and system planners. For example, include policymakers as a group of “customers” for the project results.
  • The data, models, and analytics could be efficiently and appropriately (per stakeholder group) organized and used to generate education resources. These materials could then be deployed possibly via social media explaining the state-of-the art of PV rooftop solar, associated battery storage for backup purposes, integration of EVs, etc. Conversely, an informative data stream can be generated by technicians, working for large contractors that install and maintain PV systems, who could be interviewed to get their perspective on what typically fails and needs repair. Publicity via trade press and generally solar-targeted media, such as Solar Today magazine, could contribute further along these ideas.

Final Feedback

While each project lasts two to three years, the impacts of a project may only just emerge at the end of the funding period. While awardees submit a final report with metrics for success, SETO will only truly know if a project has enduring impact if it develops a process for measuring metrics beyond the life of a project. Similarly, SETO should develop appropriate and convincing metrics to measure/quantify the impact of its data, models, and analytics portfolio beyond reductions to $/kWh.

Modern Systems Engineering (SE) methodology and tools are not included, especially regarding necessary tradeoff analysis. This impacts almost all projects in this topic. Adopting and employing existing SE methodology, and software tool suites, to facilitate development, module interoperability, and tradeoff analysis is highly recommended. Projects need to include tolerances in the specifications for model/simulation accuracies, as well as timing and accuracies for forecasting. These should include a quantitative methodology for validation and verification of new methods and simulations. Such an inclusion will further facilitate and catalyze active and efficient collaborations with all ISOs/RTOs in United States, as well as the collaborations with NREL ResStock and ComStock model teams, NREL TEMPO model team, and NREL System Advisory Model and ReOPT model teams. Such an inclusion will also address the role of, and problems with, private-sector data, modeling, and analytics tools that could either dovetail with results from these projects or "reinvent the wheel." It will be important to interact with private innovators, to create a collaborative environment, where “public/shared tools” can be efficiently integrated with private tools. And modern SE methods and tools enable such integration.


Permitting, Inspection, and Interconnection Portfolio Review

Goals and Strategy

The topic area of Permitting, Inspections, and Interconnection (PI&I) addresses some of the more formidable barriers that solar installations face in evolving from the drawing board to reality. The projects in this area primarily focused on reducing soft costs related to PI&I by standardizing codes, educating local permitting authorities, and facilitating the integration of solar into the grid. Reducing the costs related to PI&I is an effective and appropriate strategy for advancing solar deployment since soft costs now represent the majority of expenses for a solar installation. There is also a recognition that “time is money”, so that projects aimed at streamlining permitting processes or expediting interconnection approvals create value through timesaving. This topic area also relates to SETO’s goal of improving grid reliability, since the integration of renewables into the grid through sound interconnection practices will enable the country to achieve its goal of a carbon-free electrical system without sacrificing dependability.

Alignment with Goals

The reviewers in this topic area are in general agreement that the PI&I projects are aligned with SETO’s goals and that the strategies they employ are effective in achieving those goals and making a valuable contribution to SETO’s mission. The projects cover a wide range of issues but are united by their shared dedication to identifying intelligent and workable solutions to the barriers restricting the wider deployment of solar and storage in all its forms.

Funding and Resource Allocation

The Soft Cost section as a whole accounted for about 20% (63 of 318) of all projects being reviewed and just under 14% ($103M of $752M) of funding. Given the relative importance of reducing soft costs to the expansion of solar deployment, this topic area may have been underrepresented and underfunded. By contrast, CSP projects received more than twice the funding despite the fact that CSP represents only a small percentage of the U.S. solar market. Twelve of the 63 Soft Cost projects (19%) were in the PI&I topic area—a fair representation given that there are five topic areas within the section.

Technical Diversity

Interconnection was underrepresented among the three issues that comprised this topic area, with only a handful of projects dealing directly with the subject. This is unfortunate given that interconnection-related expenses can be a significant component of a solar project’s soft costs and can lead to the abandonment of projects faced with costly network upgrades. Greater consideration should be given in future funding cycles to issuing funding opportunities that focus on cost-reduction or cost-sharing strategies for interconnection, as well as approaches for reducing interconnection study lead times.

Code official education and technical assistance was the dominant topic among the projects. There is a hesitancy to use the word “overrepresented” because of the importance of a knowledgeable and dedicated network of permitting authorities to advance the deployment of solar around the country. Nevertheless, future funding cycles should consider limiting the number of such projects, particularly since there was some redundancy within the group.

Advancing the Mission

For the most part, the projects in this topic area served the U.S. solar industry as a whole by being either national in scope or replicable throughout the country even though they were locally focused. In a few instances, however, the local nature of a project could not be overcome because of geographic, climatic, or economic conditions that do not exist elsewhere. In these instances, the question must be raised as to whether the magnitude of the project’s benefits to a local region with unique characteristics offsets the need for replicability.

Areas of Improvement

Overall, there were not many blind spots identified in the project-level reviews, although a few projects contained measures of success that were essentially incomplete. For example, success may have been measured by the number of participants attending a webinar or the number of times a guidebook was downloaded—without following through to determine whether that webinar attendance or guidebook reading was directly responsible for producing the desired outcomes. One reviewer also noted the absence of a ”Plan B”—or risk mitigation plan—for projects that may not go according to design, while another observed that there was a lack of detail in assessing the economic impact of some projects. The addition of a JEDI review level will serve to eliminate any blind spots associated with those qualities.

Stakeholder Engagement

Virtually every project in the topic area recognized the need for broad stakeholder input and cast a wide net when it came to selecting partner organizations and populating advisory committees. The representation on these projects of industry trade organizations, professional associations, utilities, solar installers and equipment manufacturers, regulators, RTOs and ISOs, academic institutions, research laboratories, environmental groups, and other stakeholders was nothing short of impressive. It did not appear that any opportunities for collaboration were missed.

Final Feedback

On a personal note, this reviewer would like to thank SETO for providing the opportunity to participate in the 2022 Peer Review. This has been an eye-opening experience that revealed the incredible work being done to mitigate the impact of climate change through the advancement of solar. The topic area contained an impressive collection of projects spanning a range of critical issues. It has been an inspiration to see how PIs have assembled teams featuring the best and brightest talent from the public and private sectors, academia, and non-profits to collaborate on finding solutions to barriers related to permitting, inspection, and interconnection.


Solar Access Portfolio Review

Goals and Strategy

SETO’s goals and strategy for the Soft Cost track are two-fold. First, at a high level, the Soft Cost track aims to ensure that solar energy benefits everyone in the market with the goal that 100% of U.S. energy consumers can choose residential solar or community solar that does not increase their electricity costs. Achievement of this goal is measured by tracking the national fraction of households that can participate in community solar programs or install rooftop solar that does not increase their electricity costs. The approach is to evaluate the affordability of projects by calculating their net present value and projects that do not increase energy costs have zero or positive net present value. Residential rooftop PV can be more accessible through alternative financing or ownership models, while community solar can extend benefits of solar by offering reduced energy burden to consumers for whom a rooftop PV system is not possible or not affordable.
 
Second, at a more granular level, there are two solar access goals that support the above objective: (1) removing barriers to community solar, and (2) reducing financing costs. With the understanding that, for about half of all homes and businesses in the United States, rooftop solar is not a practical option, community solar is the solution. The goal of the programming is to facilitate, fund, and provide networking, collaboration, and technical assistance to stakeholders to expand access to affordable community solar to every U.S. energy consumer by 2025 and enable community solar to provide meaningful benefits to energy consumers, workers, employers, and communities. Additionally, low- and moderate-income households, nonprofit organizations, local governments, and tribal governments often cannot access conventional low-cost financing and tax incentives for solar projects. With the goal of reducing those financing costs, the programing intends to fund research on alternative financing models and the development of new tools and methods to evaluate creditworthiness and assess risk, as well as new mechanisms such as short-term contracts for renters, flexible credit agreements, and alternative financing qualification metrics. Holistically, this strategy is very appropriate to expanding access to solar energy without increasing costs to those customers and is leading to innovation, exposure, and advocacy of methods of achieving that goal.

Alignment with Goals

The projects are strongly aligned with the stated goals in very diverse and innovative ways. The project teams are impressive in their theses, methodology, and execution. From identifying non-traditional pools of capital to aggregate and deploy for the benefit of LMI customers to creating tools that facilitate investment into LMI project to broadly disseminating key information on LMI solar market drivers and opportunities, the goals of these projects align with the broad goals and removing barriers to community solar to LMI households and reducing financing costs to benefit LMI customers.

Funding and Resource Allocation

The funding level and number of projects for solar access is adequate, but considerations should be made to increase it. While meaningful funding has been deployed, there are several factors that suggest more might be needed. Expanding solar is critical to the success of the continued adoption, scale, and equity of solar in the market. The scale of community solar and, particularly, LMI community solar will lead to more financial comfort with the business model and hopefully, cost reduction in financing, which will be passed on to customers.
 
Second, additional funding for this topic may be warranted because soft costs are not decreasing at the same rates as hard costs. As hardware cost decreases have met goals (see the 2020 Peer Review Report), portions of those funds might be shifted to accelerate reduction in soft costs. Similarly, it appears that there is less innovation and investment in soft cost reduction and solar access than in others like hardware advancement, content innovation, and the like. Solar access is equally important and deserves the support that has been provided in other areas.

(Note from SETO: Congress determines SETO’s subprogram budgets.)
 
Finally, the community solar model is increasingly viable from financing and regulatory standpoints across the country. As those legacy challenges diminish, we must ensure support so that those projects that serve LMI and underserved communities are positioned to take advantage of the new landscape and succeed in powerful ways.

Technical Diversity

The projects have appropriate technical diversity; however, projects that adequately measure the market impact of their projects after allocation of final funds are significantly underrepresented. There are two ways to address to this. The first might be to tie the last tranche of the budget/funding to a milestone following the deployment of the project in the market. The second is to solicit/identify projects that work with other projects or independently evaluate project outcomes that have already been funded and deployed. This is critical at both the project level and also the program level and should be considered further. Another area worth considering for increased representation is more advanced/specialized tax expertise to better flow those benefits from investors to LMI customers.

Advancing the Mission

The scope of these projects 1) match SETO’s mission using research, development, and demonstration to improve affordability, performance, and value of solar, and 2) serve the interests of the solar industry broadly. Expanding access to solar for all communities, and especially to LMI households, is fundamental to the progression and maturity of the U.S. solar industry. Principles of equity mandate that everyone benefits from affordable solar energy regardless of their income level, demographic, location, etc. From a commercial perspective, expansion of the consumer market only presents the industry with increased opportunities for investors, developers, community solar aggregators, manufacturers, and all other stakeholders that support the market.

Areas of Improvement

The most significant blind spot we’ve identified is the absence of project impact measurement and reporting following final funding and project deployment. This is fundamental to understanding the success of the projects and the value of the investment in them (both in funding amounts and time/effort of participants). It’s imperative to know how these projects influence the practices and behaviors as intended and, ultimately, whether they achieve of the goals of ensuring that the benefits of solar reach everyone. Mapping intended outcomes is just as important as learning if these projects lead to unintended outcomes, positive and negative alike, and both can inform future work. As mentioned above, one method to achieve this would be to solicit projects focused exclusively on this objective.
 
Another more specific blind spot is the limited number of projects that focus on improving the relationship dynamic and incentives between community solar projects and utility buy-in and adoption. We need more projects that push utilities to invest resources to support the administration and management of these projects once they’re commercially operational. The relationship with utilities is fundamental to the ongoing administration of community solar projects, including on bill credit allocation/management and technical servicing. These functions within utilities are too often under-resourced and under-incentivized to adequately deal with the projects going online. Without meaningful collaboration and that ongoing function running efficiently, the projects suffer universally, and the impact can dis-incentivize continued investment in them. It would serve our goals to identify more projects that support this soft-cost reduction objective.
 
Last is a minor blind spot around defining key criteria across all projects. Every project uses key terms that, in most cases, are not defined but are critical. Failure to understand those terms granularly can undermine our evaluation of outcomes. For instance, knowing how a “low- and moderate-income household” is defined (e.g., by FICO score, self-attestation, census, geolocation, etc.), can inform perceived and actual project impact. Also note terms like “underserved” and “rural.” We understand this is a challenging task, but because it is central to evaluation of success, we thought it worth mentioning.

Stakeholder Engagement

Stakeholder engagement on these projects has been one of their (if not the) strongest features. The teams are very well networked and engaged in the relevant communities. The projects have been very strong at disseminating and advocating the projects and their goals to all stakeholders. The only underrepresented stakeholder worth mentioning is the utility. Because of the utilities' position in affecting project success and corresponding outcomes, it might make sense to encourage more engagement with them.

Final Feedback

Regarding the reviewer evaluation process, we suggest that the presentations for review incorporate some sort of synchronization of format to facilitate drafting of the presentation by the project teams and efficient evaluation by reviewers. This will allow project teams and reviewers alike to focus on the most germane and critical data and provide the most useful feedback. At a minimum, this might include a template for milestone and budget tracking.


Solar Siting and the Environment Portfolio Review

Goals and Strategy

SETO aims to reduce costs and barriers to solar deployment. For the Solar Siting and Environment topic area, the goals and strategy consist of expanding the types of lands where solar could be sited (floating PV, agrivoltaics, etc.), and reducing barriers in permitting, inspection, and interconnection.

Alignment with Goals

The projects in this portfolio consist of 5 projects on agrivoltaics, 2 on floating PV, 2 on interactions between birds and solar plants, 3 on permitting/local jurisdictions (including one related to stormwater management, 1 for general permitting/adoption assistance, 1 on social science aspects of solar in rural communities), and 1 on economics of solar siting and land use. 

All projects have some relevance to SETO goals strategy (i.e., none are off-topic), but there are significant differences in the expected impact of these projects, both because of the subject area and the level of integration with stakeholders. Soft costs is a very applied subject area, and, more than other SETO groups, should measure its success directly by in-depth stakeholder engagements and changes in the real world. This means that projects should go beyond having stakeholders on advisory committees, but they should work directly with stakeholders to solve real problems and then make those solutions replicable across the country through codes, site visits with permitting staff, and presentations at stakeholder conferences and resulting recruitment of participants. Success metrics should directly quantify the number of stakeholders who actually initiated and completed positive changes for solar in their workplace. In this way, reference manuals, online tools, and other best practice documents become more focused and benefit from feedback by these stakeholders. Without this direct engagement and forcing the projects participants out of their comfort zone to engage with a larger number and nationally representative group of stakeholders, SETO runs a greater risk of research that is disconnected from practice and that will not end up supporting SETO goals.

An example of a strong project in this regard is the Stormwater Management Research and Testing, where quality research that directly addresses community needs of quantifying stormwater runoff from solar plants feeds into direct engagement with local jurisdictions and other stakeholders. This engagement is leveraged to disseminate best practices through presentations at stakeholder conferences (National Watershed & Stormwater) and direct discussions with regulators, solar developers, contractors, and stormwater professionals. These discussions then inform outreach materials that are disseminated through relevant stakeholders, such as the National American Planning Association.

The current portfolio has several projects that are much more early stage and appear more esoteric. For example, for avian-solar interactions, even though the projects use impressive artificial intelligence or biological inference techniques, the sampling of the “solar space” (geographically) is grossly insufficient to make firm conclusions. It is also questionable whether the outcomes of these projects will ever have any real-world impact as there are already so many other considerations for siting solar and solar PV has clear advantages over other energy technologies in terms of ecosystem impacts and emissions.

The portfolio seems overly weighted towards agrivoltaics, which is a niche solution that has less favorable economics than regular ground-mounted PV.

(Note from SETO: SETO has many stakeholder groups that are concerned about the environmental impacts of solar, including federal, state, and local regulators that permit PV plants.)

Funding and Resource Allocation

In the overall marketplace, solar costs are competitive, public opinion is in favor of solar, and land costs are not a major favor. I consider the funding level too large, both in total across SAIS and the funding for individual projects.

Technical Diversity

There is large technical diversity between projects given efforts in ecology, limnology, wildlife, community engagement, machine learning, economics, etc. Projects in the social sciences areas could be deemphasized as generalizability is questionable.

Advancing the Mission

The scope of these projects matches SETO’s mission and serves the interests of the solar industry. Per my previous response, I consider this overall area to be overfunded. Several of the projects cover niche areas that are more of academic interests. SETO should focus on projects with strong and national stakeholder engagement and concrete results.

Areas of Improvement

I surveyed all reviewer comments and there were very few constructive suggestions or mention of blind spots. For the Mapping and Bridging Barriers in Knowledge Flows of How Solar Photovoltaics Affect Rural Community Economies project, there was a suggestion to expand the project geographically and to include counties with significant solar successes. The Agri-Solar Clearinghouse project was criticized for focusing too much on a library of free peer-reviewed articles presumably because few stakeholders would make use of it.

(Note from SETO: The library includes non-academic resources as well.)

Stakeholder Engagement

Most projects have technical advisory boards that appropriately represent key stakeholders. It is important that these boards are not too narrow in terms of discipline and contain independent experts rather than people with specific interest and/or curiosity in the subject area. It is important that DOE retain such independent experts and injects them onto the advisory boards to steer research in directions that actually matter for increased solar deployment.

Final Feedback

It is important for SETO to expressly consider funding “terminal” projects in certain areas. By “terminal” I mean projects that determine the final answer to a question and do not require follow-up funding. This is because often in research, one project leaves more open questions than it answered. The project then spawns more research and a never-ending cycle of research projects. In such cycles, often the grounding in real-world perspectives gets lost. A good example for a project that could be a terminal project is the “Developing a Deep Learning-Computer Vision Framework to Monitor Avian Interactions with Solar Energy Facility Infrastructure” project. This is a strong and ambitious project that sets out to provide a representative answer to the question whether and how much negative interactions (especially collisions) between birds and solar plants occur. Most of the funds are spent on automated detection of interaction (actually the lack thereof) between birds and solar PV plants. Preliminary results after analyzing many hours of footage show no confirmed collisions between birds and PV plants. Rather than funding follow-up work e.g. to refine the algorithms or broaden the scope, the apparent fact that solar-avian interactions are a non-issue should be widely publicized and research funding in that area should then be phased out.

(Note from SETO: The purpose of the project is to develop a monitoring technology. It is being tested at 5 sites, which is not sufficient to draw the conclusion that avian collisions are not an issue.)


Workforce Portfolio Review

Goals and Strategy

The U.S. solar industry will likely need another 250,000 to 1.25 million workers by 2035 (compared to the current 230,000 Americans employed in the solar industry). Ensuring that there are well-trained, diverse staff ready and excited to enter into a wide variety of roles within the industry, across the country, will be critical to ensuring the industry's success. The industry will need to overcome hurdles related to attracting talent in a highly competitive job market, engaging a more diverse workforce, building employer and workforce bases in less developed markets, keeping up with the pace of change in the industry, and increasingly technical challenges related to higher renewable energy penetration. Building a domestic workforce is necessary to meet decarbonization goals (with almost all but manufacturing required to be done domestically), and is an opportunity to rebuild domestic manufacturing industry, and mitigate supply chain risks to the solar industry. 

In my opinion, the most important aspects of the goal and strategy are working toward greater diversity and gender representation in the industry to ensure a just clean energy transition; ensuring there are people able to meet the workforce needs of the industry to prevent bottlenecks; and ensuring that the types of jobs these workforce development programs are oriented toward represent the wide range of job types in the industry, from entry to advanced career, and from installer to engineer to policy to communications to marketing to finance, etc.; and that the programs are geographically representative and strategic in terms of building the workforce in areas where there is likely significant growth in the industry. I believe SETO is following an appropriate strategy to meet these goals.

Alignment with Goals

There is good geographic representation, there is attention to many different aspects of the solar industry, and different training forums (from high schools to community colleges to university to professional development, particularly within the utility industry, building officials, and veteran community), and there is concerted attention toward improving diversity within the groups reached by the supported training or other workforce development programs.

Funding and Resource Allocation

The workforce development programs total approximately $18 million in funding, across 10 projects. The funding varies substantially by project, and for a few projects, the level of funding relative to similar programs/level of effort seemed out of line. Overall, the funding level seems appropriate, though additional projects and funding could provide substantial support to ensure sufficient skilled and well-qualified workers are ready to join the solar industry to meet the industry's needs and enable the country to meet the decarbonization targets necessary to mitigate devastating climate change. Additional targeted funding to projects that bring more people of color and women into the industry and support a just energy transition by bringing the benefits of well-paying jobs, clean energy, and resilient grids to communities of color, would also be warranted.

Technical Diversity

Installer-oriented training is still well represented, but there has been a good effort to expand the focus beyond entry-level installer positions. Grid integration and balance of system aspects seems a bit under-represented, as does software and cybersecurity (1 project), and efforts to attract tech workers to cleantech. Focus on bringing veterans into the solar industry may be over-funded relative to need in that community, though the solar industry would certainly benefit from the skills, dedication, and diversity that our military veterans bring.

Advancing the Mission

Workforce development is fundamental to supporting all of the other SETO efforts, and the solar industry as a whole. The emphasis on increasing diversity is timely and needed and will help bring benefits of the industry to a broader base, and communities that have traditionally been underrepresented in the solar industry and in solar adoption. A stronger domestic industry and workforce will be beneficial to the U.S. economy as a whole.

Areas of Improvement

There may be some training materials or programs that already exist that are duplicated by the projects funded, but it is impossible for the DOE to have complete visibility to all programs that are currently available. These programs will all still provide benefit and further the solar industry. It would be great to see DOE provide support to update existing training materials (rather than create new ones), bring curriculum in alignment with changing standards/certifications, and expand the use of those training materials/programs through awareness and replication.

SETO may want to put more emphasis on ensuring or requiring projects have a longer-term funding strategy for sustainability beyond the DOE funding period—this was noted as lacking a few projects. There may be some geographic gaps in the impact of the currently funded programs, particularly in "flyover states."

There seems to be limited attention to electric utility workforce development to support solar market development and grid integration, and grid modernization/innovation to enable greater solar penetration, load match, and market integration.

Stakeholder Engagement

There was significant stakeholder engagement for each project, and almost all were diverse and well-targeted, with strategic partnerships (including within the industry, educational organizations, non-profits, research organizations and government agencies) and engagement of previously underrepresented stakeholders. There may be opportunities to share best practices on stakeholder engagement to replicate the most successful collaborations or forms of engagement.

There may be opportunity to further engage the unions to expand and diversify the target audiences and integrate with existing training and paid apprenticeship models, and further work toward funding a variety of educational pathways.

Final Feedback

A recurring question was about the ultimate impact of the training programs, and whether they resulted in participants joining and staying in the solar industry (beyond initial internships), or being able to move into better paying jobs, and whether they are actually increasing diversity or gender representation in the industry. Most of these projects were still early in their funding cycles, but of those that already have participants that have completed training, efforts to improve post-training surveying or other impact assessments would be helpful to understanding how successful these programs have or haven't been, and where additional efforts or shifts in approach might be helpful. Supporting greater standardization and replication of programs, training materials, labs, etc., across the country would be very beneficial in future funding rounds. Promoting collaboration amongst organizations would also be helpful, including many of the well-established research and training organizations funded or partnering under these existing projects, as well as connecting those organizations with the more local efforts.


See more review summaries from SETO’s 2022 Peer Review.