Energy Sec. Chu addresses US solar power

The Department of Energy believes the sun will come out tomorrow – and is willing to bank on it.

The agency hopes to help lower the cost of generating solar-powered electricity to be competitive with power generated from coal or natural gas in less than twenty years. To help meet this goal, it has funded a grant program, the SunShot Initiative, to encourage the needed technology development to make solar energy cost-competitive by the end of the decade. The agency expects to reduce the installed cost of solar energy systems by about 75 percent to about 6 cents per kilowatt-hour.

“The whole idea is, within a decade, we will be the world leader not only in the research and development, but also in the deployment and manufacturing of solar energy,” said Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, who hosted a Google+ Hangout with industry experts on Friday afternoon to talk about the solar’s growth. “This is our sunshot. We are going further than reaching for the moon – we are reaching for the sun.”

Making solar energy affordable has been the biggest stumbling block to its wider use.

The Sunshot Initiative grant program provides funding for projects that can cut costs and the development time needed to bring new solar technology to market. It was started in 2011 and has funded several projects, from solar energy grids to photovoltaic labs to optical cavity furnaces.

These improvements have piqued the interest of big-ticket investors, such as Warren Buffett, Chu said.

“A decade ago, you couldn’t see the private sector saying we think this is reliable enough to invest our equity,” Chu said. “But as these things are turning online and are generating electricity and have power purchase agreements for the next 20 to 30 years, they are seeing something that they can say, we’ll buy into this because it is now bankable and we can make money.”

Solar power currently makes up less than one percent of the current domestic electricity supply, but the federal government hopes to increase this to about 14 percent by 2030 and 27 percent by 2050.

Achieving this growth would create about 290,000 new solar-related jobs by 2030 and 390,000 new solar-related jobs by 2050, according to government estimates.

The grant program encourages the development of the two technical means of generating solar power, photovoltaics and concentrated solar power. Concentrating solar power systems use lenses or mirrors to focus a large area of sunlight into a small beam, which is then used as a heat source for a conventional power plant. Photovoltaics directly convert light into electricity.

Grant program participants at the Hangout said that the financing has been critical in helping develop cost-saving solar technologies.

“The loan program was critical to help us achieve economies of scale and support financing of the project,” said Joe Desmond, senior vice president at BrightSource Energy, which received a grant last September to help developed advanced technology and process for the assembly and installation of heliostats , which would reduce the costs and construction time of the solar field in solar power tower projects.

Also at the Hangout were:

Jeffery Halsey — Broward County, Florida’s Director of Pollution Prevention, Remediation and Air Quality division

Jeff Allen — Solar Junction’s Vice President of Business Development