SunShot Shines Bright

by Andrew Grandahl

These are tough times for U.S. climate and energy policies. Most Americans who care about the environment are simply hoping the Trump administration will acknowledge science as a legitimate entity, never mind actually implement policies that are in line with what science is telling us. It’s a frustrating time, and frankly, a little scary.

Thankfully, during the Obama administration’s tenure, several programs and initiatives were launched with the goal of bringing about technological progress. Many of these programs begin with more research-intensive phases, and the real-world ramifications of this research can take time, sometimes several years, to be realized.

Last week, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, or NREL, released a report on one of these initiatives that should spark hope in the hearts of every American who cares about the future of energy and the climate.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Energy launched the SunShot Initiative. A collaboration between private and public institutions, universities, nonprofits, and national laboratories, the program’s goal was to make solar energy accessible and affordable to all Americans, in addition to hastening the United States' transition to renewable energy. By utilizing multiple approaches and strategies, SunShot has in its first six years proved to be a resounding success. Utility-scale solar in the U.S. has hit its SunShot cost targets a full three years ahead of schedule.

NREL reports that utility-scale solar has seen a drop in its average price to 6 cents per kilowatt-hour, and less than a dollar per watt. This is especially remarkable when you consider that in 2011, the rate for utility-scale solar was 27 cents per kilowatt hour. SunShot has helped make solar in the U.S. more than four times more affordable in a six year period, and between the first quarters of 2016 and 2017, the price of utility-scale solar dropped 29%. Now that is something to celebrate.

The industry as a whole is more than 85% of the way to achieving the 2020 commercial-scale and residential-scale cost targets set up by SunShot in 2011. The most significant repercussion of these drastic cost reductions is the massive increase we are seeing in solar installations of all scales across the country. According to SunShot’s 2017 First Quarter Report, the U.S. installed close to 15 gigawatts of solar capacity in 2016, nearly twice the amount installed the previous year. Out of all new electric generation capacity installed in 2016, solar installations comprised 40%. Around 8.7 gigawatts of wind power were installed as well for 2016, meaning of all new additions to electric generation in the U.S., around 60% was from renewable resources. One thing is abundantly clear; the clean energy revolution is in full swing. These trends are showing no sign of stopping, and though renewables still only provide a small amount of overall U.S. electricity generation, at the rate things are moving forward, things will be looking very different in just a few years.

Largely responsible for the cost decline in solar has been technology innovations. Solar module costs have seen dramatic reductions in the past few years, thanks to innovative designs, diamond wafer sawing to produce silicon wafers, and an oversupply of PV modules. By meeting these cost goals well ahead of schedule, initiatives like SunShot can now focus on other priorities, such as grid reliability, and even more ambitious cost targets for 2030. Right now, the goal for 2030 utility-scale solar is a stellar three cents per kilowatt hour.

It’s easy to be cynical in the current political climate. But the reality is, we are inheriting the benefits of smart policy initiatives and research programs launched half a decade ago, and the results have catapulted the renewable energy sector into irreversible economic viability. What felt like a pipe dream ten years ago is now the norm; solar and wind more and more are powering our grid and our homes, and will only be doing more so in years to come. So despite the gloomy forecast in Washington D.C., for the United States of America, the energy forecast is very, very sunny.