DOE Secretary Chu talks supporting solar at SunShot Grand Challenge forum

Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu delivered the keynote speech at the DOE’s SunShot Grand Challenge Summit and Technology Forum this week at Denver’s Hyatt Regency from June 13 to 14. The two-day event brought together a wide range of academia, scientists, company executives, policy experts and more, to discuss how the US can remain a leader in solar and reducing the costs associated with it across all fronts.

“The U.S. is in a fierce race to develop new technology,” Chu said during the keynote speech. The U.S. and its photovoltaic companies are fighting for marketshare in an increasingly tightening market with cheap imports coming from Chinese manufacturers, among others. In a later press briefing, Chu told reporters, “We see the technology is developing so rapidly. We have to be part of that game. We still are the most innovative country in the world,” he said. “If we don't play the game we can't win. In terms of renewable energy that's innovative, we can certainly win.”

During the keynote, Chu likened the SunShot Initiative to President Obama’s all-of the-above energy strategy. “It goes beyond discovery in a research laboratory, it goes beyond discovery, it goes beyond invention. It really goes to innovations meaning that it gets deployed and it gets deployed in scale.” 

The forum and the SunShot Initiative are key ingredients for the DOE to help the solar industry move forward. “The purpose of this forum is to engage the stakeholders. We think we've identified key technical and non-technical challenges and want discussions and we want feedback,” Chu said.

With the cost of solar PV coming down rapidly, however, Chu said SunShot is also working to reduce the other costs related to PV projects like hardware, electronics and balance of systems costs.  The SunShot Initiative has only been active since 2010 and results of the decade-long program are from being complete. While the program can’t take all the credit for the drops in PV module prices, it can take credit in other areas, Chu said in response to a Clean Energy Authority question at the briefing. “We are going to be taking credit for some of the balance of systems costs, some of the things that we're doing that we know will lead to decreases in the whole system,” he said.

The DOE also is interested in improving manufacturing capabilities for solar in the U.S. by developing innovations that drive down the cost the cost of manufacturing, according to Chu. “We're not funding just for the innovation to get the patent so it can be manufactured in Malaysia or somewhere. We want to look at the whole ecosystem.…If you look at the total worth of the material coming out of China and the solar modules and everything, a large fraction of that is U.S. value in the machines, in a lot of the films, in a lot of the coatings,” he said.

Also important to reducing the costs of solar are opening new doors to financing. The DOE is working on how to make make master limited partnerships more available to solar companies, according to Chu. Such partnerships will allow people to buy into solar projects as bonds. The mechanism also should make it easier for solar projects to get access to low-cost financing. 

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