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US Devotes More Coal-Killing Dollars To Cut Solar Costs

Regardless of the pro-coal rhetoric emanating from the White House, it sure looks like the US is banking on solar power, not coal power.

Bad news for the US coal industry just keeps rolling in, and now natural gas stakeholders also have a reason to fret. The US Department of Energy has just announced a new $130 million round of funding aimed at driving the cost of solar power down, down, down. Ouch!

The new round of funding could have global impacts, too. It focuses squarely on foundational research that could ripple out beyond the US borders.

Cheap natural gas has been the main driver pushing coal out of the US power generation market. Now low-cost renewables are beginning to give both coal and natural gas the bum’s rush.

That’s why the new $130 million round of funding should send up red flags. It covers five topic areas, and one of them has the goal of reducing the cost of photovoltaic cells by half.

Wait, Isn’t Solar Already Cheap Enough?

The cost of solar has been dropping like a stone, but apparently not fast enough. Here’s the rundown from the Energy Department:

Achieving the DOE’s cost targets would mean that the cost per kilowatt-hour (kWh) for unsubsidized electricity from utility-scale, commercial, and residential PV systems would be $0.03, $0.04, and $0.05, respectively, by 2030.

To that end, DOE has assigned $26 million for research that focuses on “increasing performance, reducing material and manufacturing costs, and improving the reliability of PV cells, modules, and systems.”

What About Solar Soft Costs?

Those of you familiar with the topic of solar costs will notice that there is a big hole in that $26 million. After all, solar cells only account for part of the installed cost of a rooftop array.

Well, DOE has spent many dollars tackling the other parts, and it is throwing down $17 million more on so-named balance of systems soft costs.

The dollars will go to market research programs that help local jurisdictions cut through the red tape involved in rooftop solar construction, including site selection, permits, code compliance, financing and any other regulatory hurdles.

The research will also focus on energy storage, which is an important development considering the rapid growth of the solar-plus-storage market.

$33 Million More For Concentrating Solar Power

Did you ever imagine that the cost of concentrating solar power could sink down to $0.05 per kilowatt-hour?

No, really. Concentrating solar power uses vast fields of specialized mirrors to focus sunlight on a central point, where it transfers to a heat carrier, and the heat is used to generate electricity. If that sounds complicated and costly, it is.

Nevertheless, the Energy Department is a big fan of CSP. That’s partly because the heat carrier — typically, molten salt or specialized oil — can also be used for energy storage.

Built-in energy storage!

Back in 2016, the Energy Department set a $0.05 goal for CSP by 2030. The agency’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory recently modeled the target and came up with some interesting scenarios.

At that price level, CSP could compete far beyond the confines of its current territory, the sun-rich US southwest. The lab anticipates that CSP could account for up to 16% of US electricity generation by 2050.

The new round of funding has a twin aim. One is to keep pushing costs down to the 2030 goal. The other is to develop systems that “enable CSP to provide power at any time or season.”

The New $10 Million Solar Hardware Incubator

Remember the Catalyst Energy Innovation Prize? The Obama-era program provided seed money and technical support to startups, selecting the most promising ideas through a series of contests. That’s “most promising” as in most likely to attract private investor dollars and succeed commercially.

The new round of funding includes $10 million for a similar mining of the nation’s solar innovation talent. DOE is looking for “early-stage product ideas that can lower solar costs and rapidly achieve commercialization.”

The Catalyst program aimed at market innovations leading to lower costs and rapid solar adoption. The new round of funding has the goal of pumping up the US solar manufacturing sector.

Yes, Solar Grid Integration Is A Thing

Renewables are leaping over the cost hurdle, but the anti-renewable set still has one argument left in its pocket: pouring too much wind and solar into the nation’s grid will lead to brownouts and blackouts.

Okay, so go tell that to the Energy Department. At $44 million, by far the biggest slice of the funding pie goes to the area of something called “Advanced Solar Systems Integration Technologies.”

This is where the nightmares should really kick in for fossil fuel stakeholders. And nuclear stakeholders, for that matter:

This topic area supports improving the ability of grid operators to integrate increasing amounts of solar generation onto the grid in a cost-effective, secure, resilient, and reliable manner.

This is not from the first time that the agency has promoted grid integration during the Trump administration.

The Energy Department has an ongoing grid modernization initiative that includes a healthy, and growing, dose of renewable energy.

The agency produced a coal-friendly “grid study” in 2017 at the behest of the White House, but having got that out of the way, it has been powering full steam ahead on solar and wind, too.

For that matter, the grid study seemed to make a better case for wind than coal, but whatever.

Look Out For Building Electrification

All of this activity wraps around our new favorite topic, building electrification.

The consensus among insiders (including CleanTechnica) is that electricity is already on track to displace petroleum in the transportation market.

The next big sector for electrification consists of buildings — residential, commercial, industrial, you name it.

In 2017, buildings accounted for almost 40% of total US energy consumption. That’s a lot of low hanging fruit ripe for the picking, especially when it comes to natural gas.

Buildings already account for about 75% of electricity use in the US, and the Energy Department is prepping for more, partly by pumping more dollars into research aimed at improving energy efficiency in buildings.

Regardless of the pro-coal rhetoric emanating from the White House, it sure looks like the US is banking on clean power, not coal power.

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Photo: Concentrating solar power plant via US DOE.

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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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