Solar power costs have been coming down for decades. That long and significant trend has already led to solar power becoming the cheapest option for new electricity in the world — in the history of the world. However, that doesn’t mean it’s the cheapest in every location and every situation, and it doesn’t mean that a new solar power plant is going to be cheaper than getting electricity from an existing fossil fuel power plant. So, there is more work to be done!
For starters, though, let’s take a look at this beautiful graphic below showing the average costs of solar modules in the US from 2006 through 2019 (graph on right) and US solar module shipments from 2006 through 2019 (chart on left):
Impressive, no? Yet there’s still room to improve, and the US Department of Energy (DOE) would like to do so.
Shooting for the Sun (or 2¢/kWh)
The DOE aims to cut utility-scale solar power plant costs by 60% by 2030, according to a new cost-reduction target announced by the agency earlier today (March 26, 2021).
In order to help the price-reduction trend move along, the DOE is committing another $126 million into wide-ranging pathways to lower costs.
“In many parts of the country, solar is already cheaper than coal and other fossil fuels, and with more innovation we can cut the cost again by more than half within the decade,” said Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. “This first burst of funding will help us add even more affordable clean energy to the grid, jobs to communities across the country, and will put us on the fast track toward President Biden’s goal of 100% clean electricity by 2035.”
While the 60% cost-reduction target is for utility-scale solar power plants (the cheapest on a per-kWh basis), several of the measures will certainly help bring down rooftop solar power prices as well. For an in-depth look at those, I recommend a piece I wrote a few months ago after a chat I had with Tesla CEO Elon Musk about how Tesla is able to offer record-low rooftop solar power pricing — which is just $1.49/watt after taking the US federal tax credit into account, compared to an industry average of $2.19/watt (also after taking the US federal tax credit into account).
The new utility-scale solar cost targets are to reach 3 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) by 2025 and 2 cents per kWh by 2030, accelerating that cost-reduction by 5 years from the previous target. The current average cost of electricity from a new utility-scale solar power plant is 4.6 cents per kilowatt-hour.
How DOE Aims to Cut US Solar Costs
So, how does the DOE intend to help cut solar power costs so much by 2030?
First of all, the US DOE’s Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) sees two materials used in solar cells as critical to this brighter solar future perovskites and cadmium telluride (CdTe).
The department is $63 million to try to help with these solar cell innovation goals. In the DOE’s own words:
- $40 million for perovskite R&D: Perovskites are a family of emerging solar materials that have potential to make highly efficient thin-film solar cells with very low production costs. DOE is awarding $40 million to 22 projects that will advance perovskite PV device and manufacturing research and development—as well as performance through the formation of a new $14 million testing center to provide neutral, independent validation of the performance of new perovskite devices.
- $3 million Perovskite Startup Prize: This new prize competition will speed entrepreneurs’ path to commercializing perovskite technologies by providing seed capital for their newly formed companies.
- $20 million for CdTe thin films: The National Renewable Energy Laboratory will set up a consortium to advance cheaper CdTe thin-film solar technologies, which were developed in the United States and make up 20% of the modules installed in this country. This consortium will advance low-cost manufacturing techniques and domestic research capabilities, increasing opportunities for U.S. workers and entrepreneurs to capture a larger portion of the $60 billion global solar manufacturing sector.
Those solar technologies have been improving for years and much money has gone into their development. Considering that much of the DOE’s work is in R&D, it’s not at all surprising to see that focus. More interesting or surprising to me was that the agency aims to help extend the life of silicon-based solar PV systems from 30 years to 50 years. In actuality, experience has shown some solar PV systems lasting well beyond 30 years, and although it may look wild, systems that last 50 years do not seem out of reach at all.
The DOE is putting $7 million into this portion of the effort, and that money will go toward trying to extend the lifespans of solar PV inverters, connectors, cables, racks, and trackers.
In actuality, even if solar PV systems can last 50 years, contracts and financing or investment plans typically would not extend anywhere close to that — it’s just too long a period of time for a business to involve it in planning. So, the bigger challenge to using a 50-year average cost per kWh may be more with business plans and norms than system lifespans, but perhaps that will change a bit naturally as longevity of different physical components of a solar PV system is extended.
Forget about Concentrating Solar Power … or Not
With solar PV power so cheap and getting cheaper, it may be tempting to say it’s time to give up on concentrating solar power (which is a form of thermal power like coal, natural gas, or nuclear power). However, its costs have also been dropping consistently, it offers some other benefits that could complement solar PV on a high-modern-renewables grid, and the DOE isn’t giving up on it.
“Today’s announcement also supports several concentrating solar-thermal power (CSP) projects,” the department notes. Here are details from the DOE:
- $33 million for CSP advances: The new funding opportunity also includes funding for improvements to the reliability and performance of CSP plants, which can dispatch solar energy whenever it is needed; identifies new solar applications for industrial processes, which contribute 20% of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions; and advances long-duration thermal-energy storage devices. Long-duration energy storage is critical to decarbonizing the electricity sector and couples well with CSP plants, but the cost must fall by a factor of two to unlock deployment.
- $25 million to demonstrate a next-generation CSP power plant: Sandia National Laboratories will receive funding to build a facility where researchers, developers, and manufacturers can test next-generation CSP components and systems and advance toward DOE’s 2030 cost target of 5 cents/kWh for CSP plants.
How to Learn More & Try Your Hand at DOE-Funded Solar Science & Engineering
If you’re interested in putting your hat (or science) into the ring on any of these solar topics, and potentially helping to bring down solar costs/prices in the United States, you can “[l]earn more about SETO and its research priorities in PV and CSP, and attend upcoming webinars on the open opportunities:
Naturally, some Democratic members of Congress were happy the cheer on the clean energy programs and highlight some of the numerous benefits of lower-cost solar power and greater practical scientific development. Below were a couple of top quotations on these topics.
“To combat climate change, America must put clean energy within the reach of every household. Today’s grant awards support research and development projects that will make solar panels more affordable and effective,” said U.S. Senator Ben Ray Luján. “I applaud the Department of Energy for making this strong investment in our energy future.”
“As Chairwoman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, it is thrilling to see my constituents selected to advance technologies that will play a critical role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector. Not only will these awards help the United States achieve the deep decarbonization needed to mitigate the growing impacts of climate change, but they will put many Americans in my district and around the country back to work in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said U.S. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, Chairwoman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.
As we’ve done for more than 10 years, we’ll keep you posted on trends in solar technology pricing, solar power pricing, and solar power installations. Stay tuned, and don’t forget to subscribe to keep up to date with this kind of solar news through 2030 and beyond. You can also support our work if you intend to follow this story in the coming years and hope to see us covering it. And, naturally, if you want to join the solar revolution, feel free to jump over to Tesla, SunPower, Sunrun, or another solar website to get a solar quote (they’re always free).