Photo Courtesy: Solarize Connecticut

The SunShot Initiative is well known for serving as one of the first sources of seed funding for cutting-edge solar energy technologies. At the same time, SunShot is also studying how solar energy evolves and is adopted throughout the country. By funding research that illuminates consumer behavior and developing strategies that can help to accelerate solar deployment, SunShot is positioning itself to understand the best ways to reduce stubborn soft costs.

In 2013, SunShot launched the first round of the Solar Energy Evolution and Diffusion Studies (SEEDS) funding program to take a multidisciplinary approach to understanding both the evolution of solar technology itself and how and why solar adoption spreads.

Evolution of Solar Technology

For the past 50 years, solar energy prices have been following a typical trend: as production rates increase, solar prices decline. By studying how solar energy as a technology matures over time – also known as the evolution of technology – a SEEDS research team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) discovered that improvements to manufacturing, and not solar cell efficiencies, were the most important contributor to cost reductions. Researchers found that by achieving economies of scale, focusing on productivity, and reducing waste, manufacturers play a critical role in lowering the cost of solar deployment.

In addition, researchers from MIT were also able to quantify the effect of photovoltaic (PV) deployment levels on the scale of metal production. They developed a model to test the scalability of PV materials in the early stages of technology design. Through this test, the research team was able to demonstrate the importance of pursuing cost reduction in the non-module components of PV systems. As a result of this project, other researchers will be able to use this information when exploring how to accelerate cost declines in new solar technologies.

Peers Influence Solar Adoption

While price is a critical piece in understanding solar adoption rates, SEEDS research also revealed that friends, neighbors, and communities are crucial players helping to disseminate solar across the country.

Researchers from Sandia National Laboratories found that because our decisions and choices are influenced by how our peers are behaving, social norms can be leveraged during marketing campaigns to promote rooftop solar adoption. The project team found that even the specific messages that individuals are exposed to can significantly impact their interest in solar. For example, behavioral economics experiments revealed that recent adopters are more representative of the general homeowner population, and are increasingly installing solar to protect their families against future electricity price increases, rather than for environmental reasons.

Similarly, a research team from Duke, Yale, SmartPower and Connecticut Green Bank researched engagement programs designed to galvanize support for solar at the community level. These “Solarize” campaigns can more than double the number of solar installations going up in participating communities over short campaign periods, with local events and word-of-mouth outreach serving crucial roles in shaping a person’s decision to go solar.

By taking a step back and evaluating how and why Americans go solar, the SEEDS program is delivering new information and strategies to help the SunShot Initiative meet its goal to make solar energy fully cost-competitive with traditional forms of energy by 2020. 

Learn more about the SunShot Initiative’s Soft Costs program and apply for the second round of SEEDS. Concept papers are due on March 8. 

The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) success stories highlight the positive impact of its work with businesses, industry partners, universities, research labs, and other entities.