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In addition to its solar energy research and development programs, the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) funds prize competitions to encourage innovation and accelerate the development of new solar energy solutions. SETO competitions inspire a variety of stakeholders to work together to develop new concepts and technologies that can challenge traditional thinking in the solar industry and expand and evolve what’s possible.

SETO competitions offer cash prizes and expert support to solve challenging, industry-wide problems. They set ambitious goals on a condensed timeline to encourage rapid development, enabling the best ideas to naturally surface and efficiently advance. Competitions also make it easier for new solar innovators to enter the solar market, foster interdisciplinary collaboration, and increase the number and quality of perspectives working to develop solutions. 

Learn more about each of the SETO-funded prize competitions below.

Active Prizes

American-Made Challenges

This program comprises prize competitions across the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. It is designed to incentivize innovative U.S. entrepreneurs to strengthen American leadership in domestic manufacturing. These challenges accelerate the timeline for advancing ideas and prototypes to manufacturing scale while fostering partnerships through the American-Made Network. The Network connects competitors to National Labs, industry experts, mentors, and the facilities they need to advance their solutions and progress in the competition.

American-Made Challenges: Solar Desalination Prize

This multi-stage prize competition, announced in September 2019, is designed to accelerate the development of low-cost desalination systems that use solar-thermal power to produce clean drinking water from salt water. Millions of dollars will be awarded to competitors who advance through several stages of the competition, culminating in a $1 million grand prize for the successful testing and demonstration of promising solar desalination prototypes. The competition is administered by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

American-Made Solar Prize

Launched in June 2018, this $3 million prize competition is designed to revitalize U.S. solar manufacturing. The competition encourages innovators to quickly transform new ideas into early-stage prototypes ready for industry testing. The competition is administered by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. 

Solar District Cup

The Solar District Cup, launched in spring 2019, is a multidisciplinary collegiate competition that challenges student teams to design and model distributed solar energy systems for multiple buildings on a local electrical distribution network. The goal is to design, model, and present the most reliable, resilient, cost-effective system possible while preparing students for solar careers. Teams compete in divisions, each with a distinct district-use case and winner, based on the quality of their solar energy system design. The Class of 2020 winners were announced in April 2020. The Class of 2021 teams will be announced in October 2020. The competition is administered by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Completed Prizes

Solar in Your Community Challenge

The Solar in Your Community Challenge ran from April 2017 to October 2019 and sought to expand solar electricity access to all Americans. The $5 million program encouraged the development of new and innovative financial and business models for underserved groups in the solar market, like nonprofits, low- to moderate-income communities, and state, local, and tribal governments. More than 160 teams from 40 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Guam worked with technical assistance providers to develop projects and programs to serve these groups while proving that their solutions could be widely replicated and adopted by similar groups across the country.

SunShot Prize: Race to 7-Day Solar

The Race to 7-Day Solar encouraged local governments, communities, solar companies, and electric utilities to collaborate and improve the “going solar” experience for Americans and businesses, from permit to plug-in. This competition ran from September 2015 to March 2017 and offered cash awards for teams that added process certainty and were able to reduce permit to plug-in time to just seven days for small photovoltaics systems and seven weeks for large-scale systems. Two teams made significant progress toward this ambitious goal and received an award of distinction at Solar Power International 2017. 

Catalyst Energy Innovation Prize

The Catalyst Energy Innovation Prize encouraged the rapid creation and development of products and software that addressed near-term challenges in the U.S. solar and energy-efficiency marketplaces. Through a series of contests and progressive cash prizes, Catalyst enabled American innovators to transform business plans into energy startups, helping to launch cutting-edge software companies ready to tackle time-sensitive market challenges. The program was launched as a solar-specific competition 2014 and was expanded in 2015 to include building technologies.

Additional Resources

  • Solar Decathlon: This collegiate competition challenges student teams to design and build highly efficient and innovative buildings powered by renewable energy. 
  • Student Competitions: This webpage features information about the various student-focused energy competitions funded by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.
  • Challenge.gov: This website lists all federal government-run prizes and competitions.

Learn More

Learn more about open funding opportunities and current funding programs from the Solar Energy Technologies Office.

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