Clean Power crowdsourcing hackathon low cost solar power

Published on February 23rd, 2015 | by Tina Casey

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New Hackathon Aims To Crowdsource Low-Cost Solar For The 99%

February 23rd, 2015 by  

Limitless solar energy is practically right at our fingertips, and yet the US is still hovering right around the 1% mark when it comes to harvesting all those riches. The other 99% could come around sooner rather than later thanks to a new solar energy “hackathon” hosted by the A-lister crowdsourcing platform Topcoder, from the company Appirio.

Along with our sister site Planetsave, we’ve been noting that despite the catastrophic dip in oil prices the cost of solar is still competitive in many markets, but for solar adoption to take off, a straightup advantage on rates is just the start. This new, unfamiliar technology has to be so easy to understand, easy to buy into, and easy to use, that it’s like switching from stovetop cooking to a microwave oven.

crowdsourcing hackathon low cost solar power

A-List Hackathon For Low Cost Solar

When we say A-list, we mean that Appirio’s Topcoder rounds up 700,000 of what it bills as the “world’s best problem-solving minds” for crowdsourcing projects, with a collective track record that includes Amazon Web Services, Cloud Foundry, Force.com, Heroku, HTML5, Ruby, and Java, along with Google, NASA, Starbucks, and Virgin America.

This latest project comes under the Department of Energy’s SunShot Catalyst program.

It’s a 60-day online solar hackathon designed to bring low-cost solar about more quickly, by overcoming “soft cost” obstacles. Soft costs refer to permitting, installation, grid connection, and just about anything else aside from the solar panels themselves.

Soft costs currently account for about 64% of the total installed cost of solar, so getting a grip on that will make a huge difference.

The hackathon started on Friday, February 13. It involves 17 low-cost solar projects that were selected in January through last year’s SunShot Catalyst Prize program.

One of the 17 projects is from the company Sunmetrix, and it provides a good example of the powerful low-cost solar ideas at play.

Through the Catalyst Prize, Sunmetrix is pitching a new product called Sunmetrix Go. It’s based on the company’s Track 2.0 tool, which enables solar owners to track their solar performance and energy consumption practically in real-time. With that knowledge at hand, owners can get the most out of their solar investment.

As Sunmetrix puts it, the problem is that “for every homeowner who already has solar panels installed, there are 99 homehowners who do not.” To nail a chunk of that 99%, Sunmetrix Go would provide non-owners with a free virtual test drive.

The thinking is that you get to test drive a car for free, so why not solar panels?

That would be cumbersome to do on a national basis except that it incorporates the Obama Administration’s Green Button platform. Green Button launched in 2012 as a way for utilities to provide their customers with a universal, user-friendly interface.

Okay, So What About Low-Cost Solar For The 99%?

According to the Energy Department, in less than 15 seconds, the sun provides enough energy to account for all of our needs for the next 24 hours. In other words, with soft costs under control and solar cell efficiency continuing to advance, we’re looking at a nice payback in terms of economic opportunity.

Those opportunities aren’t necessarily limited to the income brackets that can afford to pay up front for their own solar installation.



For property owners, the low-cost options began a few years ago with the advent of power purchase agreements (a form of leasing), and now other low-cost solar financing tools are coming into the market.

For tenants, even at the lower end of the income scale, more people are beginning to access low-cost solar power through public housing projects.

It’s also worth noting that as more utilities adopt solar, anyone with a grid connection is going to access more solar as well as other renewables.

The Obama Administration has also just jumpstarted a new community solar program that aims to get entire cities into the solar market. That means everyone in the community will be able to access solar power, regardless of their income. The community solar initiative establishes a national network of best practices models and technical advisors, so small cities with limited resources don’t have to reinvent the wheel in order to get the ball rolling.

You can check out the Solar Markets Pathways projects for a hint at what’s involved.

Also, in the sparkling green future, practically anyone with an electric vehicle will be able to access solar as well as other renewables, if not at home then quite likely at their workplace.

That’s thanks to another Obama Administration initiative, the Workplace Charging Challenge. As with the community solar initiative, this one has rounded up some of the nation’s leading companies to establish best practices, cutting down the guesswork for smaller companies.

To ice the affordability cake, the Energy Department has also launched a pilot project that provides discounts for charging up at work.

Stay tuned.

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Image Credit (screenshot): Courtesy of US Department of Energy.


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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



  • JamesWimberley

    What exactly is the problem that this initiative seeks to solve? Red tape isn’t cured by venture capitalists but by city halls and state governments rewriting the regulations. What I see is an industry that is getting the job done pretty well. It is also one that is maturing and consolidating, getting less friendly to bright-idea startups by the day. Want to make cheap polysilicon? The ante is $100m.

    BTW, there are no problems in using solar energy, unless you live in Spain and have to make sure you are not injecting power into the grid. Occasionally I suppose you need to check the inverters are working all right. The burden is less than owning a freezer or gas boiler.

  • Matt

    What we need is a national standard for install of roof top solar that list the 5 thing you must pass. If you pass that no permit is needed. Ok might be 3-6 load conditions to handle the different wind/snow conditions by state. Similar to what you see down under. Then towns get one year to make additions or they get the default for their state. But of course that will not happen in the US. So will remain with many regions being red lined by contractors because the zoning/permitting is too messed up.

    • JamesWimberley

      That’s what they have in Australia.

  • patb2009

    if the hackers want to do this, a tool that produces “Turn the crank” paperwork… Every city seems to have different paperwork and different requirements, if the hackathon can produce a system to fill out the forms and tkae known drawing packages and try and fit them to the details….?

  • RobMF

    Nice. It’s good to see more work ongoing to simplify and speed adoption.

  • Joseph Dubeau

    Thanks Tina,

  • spec9

    We don’t need hackers, we need electricians. Solar PV is damn cheap for anyone with house and some decent DIY electrical skills. I have installed two PV systems by myself. It is not rocket science, it is apprentice level electrician skills.

    • patb2009

      obviously you have never seen the paperwork in DC. The install is simple,
      the documentation mind boggling

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