Obama Administration Invests $60 Million In Solar Technology

Although not even a drop in the bucket compared to its oil and gas subsidies — to say nothing of its costly, wasteful wars — the U.S. government has nevertheless managed to scrape together $60 million for essential research and development into our inevitable solar power future. Curb your enthusiasm, indeed.

But enough cold water, there’s sunny money to be made — and just in time for Thanksgiving! Last week, the Department of Energy’s blessed but underfunded SunShot Initiative gifted an array of universities, companies and organizations with $60 million, necessary funding to bring cratering solar costs even lower, smarten up the national grid and further nurture one of America’s few blossoming employment sectors. It’s a modest investment that can help create positive ripple effects across a budding renewable infrastructure.

Tremendous growth in the U.S. solar industry over the past few years is helping to pave the way to a cleaner, more sustainable energy future that protects our air and water and provides affordable clean energy to more and more Americans,” said Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. Of course, that growth needs to accelerate in a hurry if we’re going to catch up to the ravages of climate change already priced into our global picture.

The first place we can look to catch up is in solar panel efficiency, which is barely hovering over 20 percent. SunShot’s Foundational Program to Advance Cell Efficiency (F-PACE) is dropping $16 million on Arizona State University, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and others to see if they can push that underwhelming number closer to 30 percent. ASU and NREL are also scoring another cool million-plus each, alongside Stanford, Sandia National Labs and GE Global Research, as part of SunShot’s tongue-twisting program, Physics of Reliability: Evaluating Design Insights for Component Technologies in Solar (PREDICTS), which seeks to drive innovation in predictive analytics, as well as microinverters and microconverters.

On a less technical front, SunShot divided $12 million among 17 companies in its eighth Solar Incubator Program, which has leveraged $100 million in government funding since its 2007 launch to entice nearly $2 billion out of the pockets of private equity and venture capital. The goal is to expand adoption of home solar, and to lower the costs of installations. One of the companies landing SunShot funds is the excellent Sunrun, whose automated solar design system Lightmile scored $1.6 million. Spearheaded by AutoCAD pioneer Billy Hinners, Lightmile’s cloud-based design tool will empower both geeks and noobs alike to optimize solar designs without specialized training using automated “shade analysis, energy simulations, bills-of-material, system costs, proposals and contracts,” according to Sunrun.

Also of note is SunShot’s Solar Utility Networks: Replicable Innovations in Solar Energy program (SUNRISE, naturally), which dropped nearly $8 million on eight awardees. Almost half of that haul is headed for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association in Virginia, which is pushing to deploy 23 MW in less than three years to co-ops nationwide. As important is SunShot’s material support of solar employment, which amounts this year to $16 million. That includes a million for Delaware State and University of Texas, Austin — who don’t really need it, given their respective states’ dangerous but lucrative deregulation of finance and energy — to create solar research and education opportunities to minorities — who really need it, in every state.

Again, it’s all chump change compared to what we really need to spend on renewables and employment to meaningfully dial back global warming’s dystopia. But it’s nevertheless another small annual step to a long-term existential goal that desperately needs any advances it can find. Let’s hope that the Obama administration and its Department of Energy find much more money to give SunShot next year.

This article appeared at Solar Energy