President Obama’s Clean Power Plan includes an important new incentive for solar and wind energy, and with that in mind, we’re happy to catch up with the Energy Department’s SunShot Catalyst program. SunShot Catalyst is designed to drive down the cost of solar technology and overcome obstacles to solar adoption, by presenting innovators with prize-based challenges totaling approximately $1 million in cash and support services — and one of those prize-winning innovators could be you.
Catching Up With SunShot Catalyst
For those of you new to the topic, SunShot Catalyst is part of the Energy Department’s broader SunShot solar program. It was launched in 2011 as the Energy Department’s version of the famous “Moonshot” race-to-the-moon initiative of President John F. Kennedy, which propelled the US to a come-from-behind win.
The aim of SunShot is to bring the cost of solar energy down to parity with fossil fuels as quickly as possible. That includes both the “hard costs” associated with solar cell efficiency and manufacturing solar panels, and the “soft costs” that come into play for marketing, permitting, installation, and grid connection, among other areas.
As part of SunShot, the Catalyst program is a prize-based competition aimed at tackling soft costs. It begins with an Ideation contest, in which the Energy Department issues a general call for the identification of significant, solvable issues in the solar market, so in essence it opens up the solar R&D process to anyone with a great idea.
Business-based solutions are then developed during the Business Innovation contest, which is also an open competition.
The next phase, Prototype, is open only to the winning group from the Business Innovation step. They are tasked with developing viable prototypes, with support from the Energy Department.
From this group, a select five are chosen for the Incubation phase, which provides an initial $30,000 for each team to start bringing its prototype to a marketable level, with another $70,000 to come for meeting agreed-upon milestones.
Last year was the inaugural year for SunShot Catalyst, and five winners each got a $30,000 prize to get their “early-stage” software solutions off the ground.
The list of winners gives you an idea of what types of problems the Energy Department has identified as significant and solvable:
Gridmates—leverages peer-to-peer energy sharing to combat energy poverty.
PVComplete—offers comprehensive solar project design software for solar salespeople that is compatible with the systems used by solar energy system engineers, roofers, and contractors.
Savenia Solar Ratings—quantifies the value of solar energy systems for homeowners and installers.
Solar Site Design—sells qualified solar energy development projects to solar equipment manufacturers, suppliers, engineering firms, and finance companies.
UtilityAPI—automates utility data acquisition for solar companies so they can accurately size solar energy systems for customers based on their previous electricity usage.
Gridmates in particular caught my eye, because it addresses income-based obstacles to solar adoption. That dovetails with the aforementioned new item in the Clean Power Plan, the Clean Energy Incentive Program, which shoves fossil fuels aside by providing credits for wind, solar, and energy efficiency improvements for low-income communities.
Yes, You Can Participate In SunShot Catalyst
If you want to get in on the action, you’re still in time. The Ideation phase has already taken place, and now we’re on to the Business Innovation contest. The Energy Department has selected a load of crowd-submitted ideas, for example:
— A TurboTax-like solar permitting solution that streamlines a notoriously cumbersome process.
— Small unmanned aerial vehicles — aka drones — to inspect large solar fields, reducing the cost and emissions associated with ground transportation around solar fields (we’re just guessing that a zero emission model will win this one).
— A self-learning electric vehicle charging station that can, among other things, adjust the timing of a charge depending on solar panel output, weather, and user habits among other factors.
For the Business Innovation step, all you need to do is provide the Energy Department with a brief video pitch telling how you would develop a product or service to solve the one of these problems.
As for which idea you want to solve, that’s a toughie. There are about 212 ideas on the Catalyst list, and all of them are very intriguing. One that especially caught my eye was a solution for the “Rebound Effect,” in which owners of rooftop solar panels tend to use more electricity after going solar.
Got a solution for that?
Image (screenshot) via energy.gov.