There is broad agreement that the world’s current reliance on fossil fuels for energy is not sustainable.
This realization has led many countries to encourage the use of renewable sources of energy, such as solar.
In the United States, the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) has been at the forefront of several projects that encourage the use of solar energy. The department used to publish a page to provide updates on their most important projects. However, this page is no longer available.
We took some time to find out what happened with three of the most important solar energy projects that the department managed.
The United States Department of Energy
The United States DOE was established in 1977 for various reasons: one was to promote scientific and technological innovation.
The SETO was established, under the DOE, to support research development in three areas;
- concentrating solar power, and
- systems integration.
These areas were aimed at improving the affordability, reliability, and performance of solar technologies.
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The Sunshot Initiative
The SETO launched the Sunshot Initiative in 2011. The program was made up of private companies, universities, state and local governments, non-profit organizations, and national laboratories.
The initiative’s goal was to facilitate a 75% reduction in the cost of solar energy by 2020.
Surprisingly, this target was met three years early in 2017 when the DOE announced that the initiative had achieved a goal of $0.06 per kilowatt hour.
The project increased the amount of solar energy as a percentage of the total power used in the US, from just 3 gigawatts in 2011 to 47 gigawatts in 2017 (Source).
Having achieved its goals ahead of schedule, the Solar Energy Technology Office set new goals that are to be achieved by 2030. The goals are to reduce the cost of photovoltaic energy by another 50% by 2030 (Source).
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Areas of Operation
The Sunshot initiative had five programmatic areas of operation, photovoltaics, concentrating solar power, soft costs (or balance of systems costs), systems integration, and technology to market.
Under photovoltaics (the production of electricity from light using semiconducting materials), the initiative worked with different stakeholders to produce reliable PVs. The aim was to increase the amount of electricity generated by solar cells and panels.
The concentrating solar power supported research technologies dealing with the utilization of high-temperature components.
Systems integration was a program whose aim was to integrate solar energy into the national grid. To reduce non-hardware costs of solar energy, the DOE came up with the Soft Cost program. The Technology to The Market program would focus on investigating and validating early stage solar technology (Source).
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The Solar Decathlon is an international competition where college and university student teams are challenged to design and build innovative houses. The buildings should be highly energy efficient, resource-responsible, and intelligent. Above all, they must be powered by renewable energy.
The Solar Decathlon started in 2002, and it takes place every second year.
The competition brings together twenty teams that are required to assemble their houses in less 14 days. The Solar Village (denoting the site of the competition) is open to academics, researchers, industrial partners, and members of the public.
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An international group of adjudicators decides on which house is the winner for each edition of the competition. The competition has also been held in Europe, China, and Latin America (Source).
SETO initiated the Solar Decathlon to provide students with unique skills which would prepare them for the clean energy workforce. It also had the aim of making the public aware of the savings and comfort associated with homes which are designed to produce and use energy efficiently.
Ten years after the first competition, the DOE reports that over 160 teams and almost 19,000 participants had been impacted.
It also indicates that through the use of digital tools and generating media coverage, the public has been able to appreciate the affordability benefits and availability of clean energy (Source).
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The Solar America Initiative
The Solar America initiative was established to make solar energy cost-competitive by 2015. However, the program was short lived as its objectives became incorporated into the Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies program in 2009. This is the program on which the Sunshot initiative was founded.
President George Bush launched the SAI in 2006. The SAI was run in partnership with industry, universities, states, municipalities, and non-governmental organizations. The initiative aimed to reduce dependence on fossil fuel to mitigate the negative impact of such fuels on the environment.
The Solar America project was divided into two categories: the Technology Pathway Partnerships and Market Transformation.
The Technology Pathway Partnerships focused on research and development of photovoltaics.
Market Transformation had its focus on providing solutions to market barriers as well as accelerating demand for solar technologies.
Financial assistance was made available to 25 US cities under the project. The cities were expected to adopt solar technology at a local level (Source).
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Solar Energy Success Stories
As a result of the projects that were run by the Solar Energy Technologies Office, several success stories were recorded.
Examples include the formation of a scanner by the Solar Tau Science. The scanner can detect signs of degradation in outdoor PV arrays (these include all the components that enable electricity to be produced from solar, including the panels, inverter, cabling, and mounting) (Source).
Another example is the composite material, cermet, which improves energy conversion. It was invented by a team of researchers at Purdue University.
Solar has also become a big deal in real estate. It has been shown that solar adds value to homes. For instance, two studies commissioned by Berkley Lab in 2015 concluded that home buyers across the US were willing to “pay a premium of about $15,000 for a home with an average-sized solar array” (Source)
These are just a few of the many success stories recorded by the SETO through its various projects. The stories show the potential that solar energy has as a solution to the challenge of fossil fuels.
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