This photograph features the 6-kilowatt (kw) rooftop photovoltaic system that Mercury Solar Systems installed in the Lower Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia.| Photo courtesy of Mercury Solar Solutions

More and more Americans each year are investing in energy efficiency improvements to their homes and installing renewable energy systems like solar panels to save energy and money. Solar energy modules have become far more affordable in the last few years, with the price falling by half in 2011 alone. In fact, solar energy is currently the fastest growing renewable energy sector. According to industry reports, investments in the solar sector (in G-20 countries) soared in 2011, increasing 44% to $128 billion, and cumulative U.S. solar photovoltaic capacity grew 85% from the previous year.

The Energy Department continues to make major strides in paving the way for cost-effective, reliable energy from the sun, while investing in skills for American workers. As part of this effort, the Department recently launched a free online training program for building and electrical code officials who perform inspections for residential photovoltaic (PV) solar energy installations. This training program is helping to establish a consistent and streamlined PV inspection process in jurisdictions throughout the country, saving time and reducing costs for consumers. While this online training program is geared to code officials, it is also appropriate for solar installers, architects, students, and consumers who are interested in this growing field.

The Photovoltaic Online Training (PVOT) program is designed as an engaging, fast-paced learning tool, using video and photographs to clearly and quickly illustrate correct techniques for safe solar installations that comply with all relevant building and electrical codes. The PVOT program provides lessons in subjects such as roof and ground mounted PV arrays, electrical requirements, equipment ratings, and expedited permitting. It even tracks each participant's progress and test scores, and meets professional licensing requirements for ongoing education in most cities and states.

The program is part of the Solar Instructor Training Network, which aims to strengthen solar PV professional training quality and capacity across the country, providing American workers with the skills and training they need to compete in the global clean energy race. PVOT training modules are hosted on the Department's National Training & Education Resource, an open-source online learning platform.

In September, the Energy Department also announced the start of a new competition to make it faster, easier, and cheaper to install rooftop solar energy systems. The "SunShot Prize" competition makes a total of $10 million in cash awards available to the first three teams that repeatedly demonstrate that non-hardware costs, or the price to plug in, can be as low as $1 per watt for small-scale photovoltaic (PV) systems. This ambitious target represents a decrease in the "soft costs" of solar energy systems—including permitting, licensing, connecting to the grid and other non-hardware costs—by more than 65%. By breaking a significant price barrier that was considered unachievable only a decade ago, the winning teams will demonstrate that solar energy is an affordable solution for American families and businesses. Visit the SunShot Prize website for complete registration and competition details.

And the 2013 U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon is around the corner. The Solar Decathlon challenges 20 teams from colleges and universities across the United States and from around the world to build solar-powered, highly energy-efficient homes that combine affordability, consumer appeal and design excellence. Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced the 20 collegiate teams selected to compete in 2013 and unveiled the competition's location, the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, California.

Here, in Washington, we're all used to dealing with some hot summer days, so it's clear that solar energy is a boon for the region. But there are good solar resources across the United States. As the cost of solar energy continues to fall, you might consider taking steps to tap into yours.