Affordable Energy: Slashing Prices for Solar Electricity0

Layla Bellows | Wed Mar 14 2012 |

In the realm of solar energy, the attention-grabbers tend to be the newest technologies.

The ones that will revolutionize how solar cells work; the ones that will better harness and better convert the sun’s inherent power into electricity; the ones that in the future—and after extensive testing—will be faster, stronger, and more efficient.

Yet, as anyone who already has a solar array resting on their rooftop or flowing in from their utility can attest, there’s plenty of good technology out there. It’s just that it hasn’t been widely adopted, and a great deal of that has nothing to do with the cost of the technology itself.

Rather, it’s the additional cost it takes to make today’s modules work: something known as balance of system, the bulk of which is related to the physical installation of the product.

In fact, the Rocky Mountain Institute hosted a charrette of industry leaders in 2010 based on this very issue and noted that the cost of modules has actually decreased over the past decade, but the balance of system costs remain the major barrier for reaching the critical mass it will take to reach grid parity.

Photovoltaics: Shooting for the sun

This comes as no surprise to Charlie Korman, manager of solar energy programs at GE Global Research.

“To get the price of photovoltaics to a point where it’s competitive with electricity, we don’t require any breakthroughs in cell technology,” he says. “The solar cell technology that exists today is good enough.”

GE was recently awarded nearly 3.7 million in funding from the Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative, a program specifically dedicated to cutting the installed cost of solar energy systems by 75 percent by 2020.

The focus is on developing systems at a price point that can be embraced by consumers.

The funding is divided into two components: 2.1 million is going toward improving components of residential systems—ultimately simplifying installation—and about 1.76 million is going toward a unique solar array design that allows for both easier installation and maximizing rooftop space on commercial buildings.

The key phrase in SunShot’s description is “installed cost.” The program seeks to rapidly transform the cost for consumers rather than the cost for research and development. The focus isn’t on technology that might be ready for pilot testing in 10 years; the focus is on developing systems at a price point that can be embraced by consumers minding logical concerns about upfront costs.

“We’re not talking about the cost of making the products but the price that the consumer pays,” Korman says. “Bringing that price down to a point where solar can be competitive with what the consumer pays today and tomorrow for electricity. The focus is more on systems and reducing the cost of getting the products to market and installing them.”

SunShot’s ultimate goal is to make solar electricity cost approximately $0.06 per kilowatt-hour. With the average cost of electricity in the U.S. hovering at $0.14 per kilowatt-hour, that’s an ambitious goal for energy in general.

GE Global Research and the next generation of solar

GE has already invested in the products the SunShot Initiative is funding, which allows those funds to focus on the key components necessary to bring the products to the market.

For instance, on the residential side, GE Global Research has developed the Insert and Capture Solar Array, a rooftop system that is basically as easy to install as the roof itself, and as easy to connect to the grid as it is to plug in an appliance, making the whole thing cheaper to install. The array has been through testing and demonstration, proving that all it takes to install is two standard roofers and about a half a day.

The system is based on an A/C module, in which each photovoltaic module directly outputs 240 volts of A/C power. The design of the system also allows individual modules to be removed for repair while the rest of the system continues to function.

The Insert and Capture Solar Array is as easy to install as the roof itself

The key to the whole thing is a specialized microinverter integrated into each module. “The microinverter is really the critical element in reducing the installation cost because it makes the system easier to handle by your standard contractors,” Korman says.

SunShot’s funding for the project specifically will address the microinverter, enabling GE to create the next generation of the product. It will further drive down the cost of the product by refining the design and integration of the microinverter itself, as well as how it’s packaged and integrated with a new intelligent circuit breaker.

On the commercial side, SunShot’s funding is going toward proving a new solar array design GE has developed is viable, and then demonstrating it. Korman likens the design to a bifold door like many people have on their closets. The design reduces packaging, reduces the weight, and makes installation easier, all of which comes together to create a more effective, more affordable array.