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Solar Soft Costs Targeted by New SunShot Catalyst Prize

Kickstarter, move over. The US Department of Energy has just announced a new competition, complete with cash prizes, to help launch cutting edge solar companies that offer solutions to the challenges of today’s solar marketplace. Called SunShot Catalyst, the competitive program will culminate in award packages of up to $100,000 each for five winning startups.

If you’re thinking that’s chump change compared to what it would really cost to develop to develop a new cutting edge photovoltaic cell, well, there’s a short answer and a long answer.

SunShot Catalyst

SunShot Catalyst (screenshot) courtesy of US DOE.

The Soft Costs Of Solar Installations

The short answer is yes. The long answer is that federally funded solar cell R&D is already in the capable hands of other SunShot programs, with an assist from the Energy Department’s ARPA-E funding arm, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and other national laboratories, and various branches of the armed services, particularly the Air Force.

SunShot Catalyst is specifically intended to address the “soft costs” of an installed solar system, which includes administration, marketing, consumer education, labor, shipping, permitting, grid connections, and everything else other than the actual cost of the solar panels.

Just a few years ago, soft costs accounted for about half the cost of a typical solar installation. A video presentation on the SunShot Catalyst website now puts soft costs at up to 64 percent. That reflects the good news, which is the rapidly dropping cost of photovoltaic cells relative to the overall cost of a solar installation.

The bad news, though, is that solar soft costs have been hard to budge.

The SunShot Catalyst Program

So, that brings us to the SunShot Catalyst program.

The first step is Ideation, which challenges contestants to leverage available data to develop a profile of US solar market needs and problems, which could be solved through automation, algorithms, data, or software.

The Ideation step is designed to be super-accessible. If you don’t have a solution, that’s okay. You can just come up with a problem statement. Eventually, if your statement is used by one of the top five teams to develop their business model you could be eligible to win $1,000 in cash prizes.

After that it gets a little more selective. The next step is Business Innovation, which requires you to come up with a business plan and a five-minute video presentation. This stage accommodates up to 20 winners. If you are among the lucky ones, you get to work with something the Energy Department calls a “crowd-centric performance-based software development platform” to create a product that demonstrates viability.

The 20 contestants get to advance to the Prototype phase, which includes $25,000 worth of support from Energy Department software for about two months.


In the last step, Incubation, teams are expected to start offering their products and services in the marketplace. The Energy Department will host a “Demo Day” for your showcase. The event includes an evaluation by judges, with up to $100,000 in cash prizes going to the winning teams.

Wanna get in on it? Visit the SunShot Catalyst Ideation Platform by June 20 to submit a problem statement, or email if you have any questions.

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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