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US Energy Dept. Has A Solar Power Message For Coal: Get Lost!

The cost of solar power is set for yet another steep slide at the expense of coal, regardless of the love showered on coal miners by the Commander-in-Chief.

For someone who promised to revive the US coal industry, President* Trump sure is letting Energy Secretary Rick Perry get away with murder. Coal power plants and coal producers have been dying off in growing numbers all during Secretary Perry’s tenure, thanks in part to his agency’s promotion of renewable energy. In the latest development, last month Perry announced that he would resign later this year — but not before his agency pushed out yet another round of  R&D funding aimed at pushing the cost of solar power far below the cost of coal.

solar power costs

SETO goals for cost of photovoltaic solar power (via US DOE).

Coal-Killing Goals For Solar Power

One major funding announcement occurred yesterday, when the Energy Department pushed out a new round of solar R&D funding that totals $128 million for 75 different projects.

The overall goal is to reach a 2030 solar power cost target of $0.05 per kilowatt hour, for residential PV. The goal for commercial PV is somewhat lower at $0.04. The utility-scale goal is lower still, at $0.03.

If that sounds like a coal-killing kind of a goal, it is. According to our friends over at Electric Choice, the average cost of electricity for a residential customer as of last August was 13.19 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Coal’s share of the overall US power generation market is shrinking, but it is still the dominant energy source in several states. According to stats compiled by 24/7 Wall Street last spring, coal-dependent Arkansas, North Dakota, Kentucky, and Nebraska all weigh in around the 10 cents per kWh range for residential use.

That’s the low end of the scale. Michigan nailed the high spot for coal-dependent states in the 24/7 Wall Street survey, at $15.47 cents per kWh.

How Low Can Solar Power Go?

The prospects for bringing down the cost of coal power range from zero to none. It’s a different story with solar power, as amply illustrated by the new round of R&D funding.

The $128 million will cover 75 projects in five areas.

In the photovoltaic R&D area, the aim is to “improve the performance, cost, and reliability of technologies currently on the market, work with new materials that can lower the cost of PV-generated electricity, and explore ways to increase the lifetime energy output from PV arrays.”

Along with long term research projects, this area includes relatively modest short-term projects where results are anticipated within  a year.

Another area of focus covers concentrating solar power. This should warm the hearts of concentrating solar fans, who have stayed the course despite initial skepticism over cost and complexity (concentrating systems involve focusing sunlight from specialized mirrors or other surfaces onto a central collection point).

A third area covers soft costs, which are perhaps the stickiest wicket when it comes to reducing the cost of solar. Also referred to as balance-of-systems costs, soft costs include financing, permits, and other factors that contribute to the final, installed cost of a solar array.

Cost-cutting projects relating to energy storage and cyber security issues are also included in this area.

Product development — aka incubation — is a fourth area. This slice of the award pie will go to lift promising ideas from the private sector off the drawing board, over the “Valley of Death,” and into commercial development.

Seven projects received funding under this area. Together, they cover cost-cutting technology for fabricating perovskite, silicon, and other hardware, along with new approaches to systems integration and preventing dust from settling on solar panels. A new “field factory” approach to installing solar arrays is also in the mix.

Solar Power: But Wait, There’s [Much] More

The fifth area in this funding round is especially interesting, because it relates to a controversy that erupted shortly after Secretary first took the reins at DOE. One of his first tasks was to produce a “grid reliability” report, aimed at proving the continued need for baseload coal power plants.

Not all went according to plan. The study did provide some comfort to coal fans, but in between the lines was a kind of love letter to the US wind industry, which has since surged. Meanwhile, coal power continues tumbling into irrelevance.

More to the point, the grid study was redundant. The Energy Department already had a massive grid modernization initiative well under way, with reliability and resiliency as primary goals, along with affordability and cyber security.

The Grid Modernization project is partly aimed at integrating more smaller-scale renewable energy resources into the grid, aka DERS for distributed energy resources, and solar power is a focal point.

The US Department of Defense is a huge fan of DERS generally and solar power specifically as a means of improving energy security at its facilities, so there’s that.

That’s where the fifth slice of the $128 million funding pie comes in. This area covers “technologies that ease the integration of solar energy onto the U.S. grid, especially in areas where solar could supply a high percentage of electricity.”


Speaking Of Grid Modernization…

The new solar power funding was not the only announcement that came down the pike yesterday. DOE also announced $80 million in new funding for “lab call” projects under the Grid Modernization Laboratory Consortium.

The funding builds on work that began during the Obama administration (lol wait ’til the Commander-in-Chief finds out!), with some additional twists aimed at overall energy systems integration, cyber security, and an accelerated timeline for results.

Among the 23 GMLC projects to receive funding, at least five deal directly with ramping up the integration and management of distributed energy resources. That includes solar and wind along with natural gas and other technologies. Coal, not so much.

Of particular interest among the awardees is DOE’s Grid-Interactive Efficient Buildings initiative. Through this initiative, the agency envision a future in which “buildings operate dynamically with the bulk power system and distribution grid to make electricity more affordable and integrate DERs while meeting the needs of building occupants.”

Wait, what about coal?

If it’s beginning to look like Secretary Perry is trolling the President at the expense of coal stakeholders, well this wouldn’t be the first time.

Follow me on Twitter.

*Developing story.

Image: via US Department of Energy.


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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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