The costs of solar energy have been reduced for decades. That long and significant trend has already led to solar power becoming the cheapest new electricity option in the world, in the history of the world. However, that does not mean that it is the cheapest in all places and situations, and it does not mean that a new solar power plant is cheaper than getting electricity from an existing fossil fuel power plant. So there is more work to be done!
However, to get started, let’s take a look at this beautiful graph below that shows the average costs of solar modules in the US from 2006 to 2019 (graph to the right) and the shipments of solar modules in the US. . From 2006 to 2019 (graph on the left):
Impressive isn’t it? However, there is still room for improvement, and the US Department of Energy (DOE) would like to do so.
Shooting for the sun (or 2 ¢ / kWh)
DOE aims to reduce utility-scale solar power plant costs by 60% by 2030, based on a new cost reduction target announced by the agency today (March 26, 2021).
In order to help the price reduction trend advance, the DOE is committing another $ 126 million in wide-ranging avenues to reduce costs.
“In many parts of the country, solar energy is already cheaper than coal and other fossil fuels, and with more innovation we can reduce the cost again by more than half in the decade,” said Energy Secretary Jennifer M. Granholm. . “This first burst of funding will help us add even more affordable clean energy to the grid, jobs for communities across the country, and put us on the fast track toward President Biden’s goal of 100% clean electricity by 2035.”
While the 60% cost reduction target is for utility-scale solar power plants (cheapest per kWh), several of the measures will certainly help lower rooftop solar prices as well. For an in-depth look, I recommend an article I wrote a few months ago after a conversation I had with Tesla CEO Elon Musk about how Tesla can offer record rooftop solar prices, which is only $ 1.49 / watt. after factoring in the US federal tax credit, compared to an industry average of $ 2.19 / watt (also after factoring in the US federal tax credit).
The new utility-scale solar cost targets are to reach 3 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) by 2025 and 2 cents per kWh by 2030, accelerating that cost reduction by 5 years from the previous target. The current average cost of electricity for a new utility-scale solar power plant is 4.6 cents per kilowatt-hour.
How DOE Aims to Lower Solar Costs in America
So how does the DOE plan to help reduce solar energy costs so much by 2030?
First, the US DOE’s Office of Solar Energy Technologies (SETO) sees two materials used in solar cells as critical to this brighter solar future, perovskites and cadmium telluride (CdTe).
The department has $ 63 million to try to help with these solar cell innovation goals. In the DOE’s own words:
- $ 40 million for perovskite R&D: Perovskites are a family of emerging solar materials that have the potential to make highly efficient thin-film solar cells with very low production costs. DOE is awarding $ 40 million to 22 projects that will advance perovskite photovoltaic devices and manufacturing research and development, as well as performance through the formation of a new $ 14 million test facility to provide neutral validation and independent of the performance of newer perovskite devices.
- $ 3 million Perovskite starter award: This new award competition will accelerate entrepreneurs’ path to commercialization of perovskite technologies by providing seed capital for their newly formed companies.
- $ 20 million for CdTe thin films: The National Renewable Energy Laboratory will form a consortium to promote cheaper CdTe thin-film solar technologies, which were developed in the United States and constitute 20% of the modules installed in this country. This consortium will advance low-cost manufacturing techniques and national research capabilities, increasing opportunities for US workers and entrepreneurs to capture a larger slice of the $ 60 billion global solar manufacturing sector.
Those solar technologies have been improving over the years and a lot of money has been invested in their development. Considering that much of the DOE’s work is in R&D, it is not at all surprising to see such an approach. More interesting or surprising to me was that the agency aims to help extend the life of silicon-based solar PV systems from 30 to 50 years. In reality, experience has shown that some solar PV systems last well over 30 years and while it may sound wild, systems that last 50 years do not seem out of reach at all.
DOE is investing $ 7 million in this portion of the effort, and that money will go toward trying to extend the life of solar PV inverters, connectors, cables, racks, and trackers.
In reality, even if solar PV systems can last for 50 years, contracts and financing or investment plans would normally not come close to that – it’s too long a period of time for a company to involve you in planning. Therefore, the biggest challenge of using a 50-year average cost per kWh may be more with business plans and regulations than with the life of the system, but perhaps that will change a bit naturally as the longevity of the different physical components of a solar photovoltaic system.
Forget concentrating solar energy … or not
With solar PV so cheap and getting cheaper, it can be tempting to say it’s time to stop concentrating solar power (which is a form of thermal power like coal, natural gas, or nuclear power). However, its costs have also steadily declined, it offers some other benefits that could complement solar PV in a very modern renewable energy grid, and the DOE is not giving up.
“Today’s announcement also supports several concentrated solar power (CSP) projects,” the department notes. Here are details from the DOE:
- $ 33 million for CSP advances: The new financing opportunity also includes financing for improvements in the reliability and performance of CSP plants, which can send solar energy when needed; identifies new solar applications for industrial processes, which contribute 20% of US carbon dioxide emissions and advances long-term thermal energy storage devices. Long-term energy storage is critical to decarbonizing the power sector and pairs well with CSP plants, but the cost must be reduced by a factor of two to unlock deployment.
- $ 25 million to demonstrate a next generation solar thermal power plant: Sandia National Laboratories will receive funding to build a facility where researchers, developers and manufacturers can test next-generation CSP components and systems and move toward the DOE’s 2030 cost target of 5 cents / kWh for CSP plants.
How to learn more and try your luck in DOE-funded solar science and engineering
If you are interested in putting your hat (or science) in the ring on any of these solar issues, and potentially helping reduce the cost / prices of solar energy in the United States, you can “[l]Learn more about SETO and your PV and CSP research priorities, and attend upcoming webinars on open opportunities:
Naturally, some Democratic members of Congress welcomed the clean energy programs and highlighted some of the many benefits of low-cost solar power and further practical scientific development. Below are a couple of important quotes on these topics.
“To combat climate change, the United States must make clean energy available to every home. The grants awarded today support research and development projects that will make solar panels more affordable and effective, ”said US Senator Ben Ray Luján. “I applaud the Department of Energy for making this strong investment in our energy future.”
“As chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, it is exciting to see my constituents selected to promote technologies that will play a critical role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector. These awards will not only help the United States achieve the deep decarbonization necessary to mitigate the growing impacts of climate change, but will put many Americans in my district and across the country back to work amid the COVID-19 pandemic. ” said US Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, Chairperson of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.
As we have done for more than 10 years, we will keep you informed on trends in solar technology prices, solar energy prices, and solar energy installations. Stay tuned and don’t forget to subscribe to keep up to date with this type of solar news through 2030 and beyond. You can also support our work if you intend to follow this story for years to come and look forward to seeing us cover it. And naturally, if you want to join the solar revolution, feel free to switch to Tesla, SunPower, Sunrun, or another solar website for a solar quote (they’re always free).
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