USDOE Sunshot Goal

Energy Secretary Steven Chu has been spending money like he was about to run out—or face the torment of a thousand recissions by a Congress eager for spending reduction headlines.  Of late, the focus of his attention has been solar energy.


He announced a $170 million Sunshot Initiative designed to drive down the cost of solar energy to $1 per watt.  SunShot will be organized around four subprograms of the Solar Energy Technologies Program: Photovoltaics, Concentrating Solar Power, Systems Integration, and Market Transformation.

USDOE says today’s average $3.40 per watt solar PV cost must come down for solar to be truly mainstream.  DOE predicts costs will continue to drop and by 2016 will average $2.20 but more R&D is needed to get to the Sunshot goal of $1 per watt.  The best estimate of expected crystalline silicon (c-Si) prices suggest it will reach $1.05 in 2015 but it will take until 2030 to get to $0.50 per watt but that is only one component of a total installed system cost.

SunShot focuses on the installed ‘system as a whole’ to reduce installation and permitting costs, which are a significant complaint of solar developers as state and local fees drive up the total installed system price of solar electricity. Sunshot seeks to encourage states and localities to streamline and digitize local permitting processes and to develop codes and standards that ensure high performance over the useful 20-year planned life of residential solar projects.  This is a tough sell to cities desperate for building permit revenue.  Both wind and solar projects have faced growing pushback from local planning and zoning over noise, aesthetics and other placement issues.


At the same time, USDOE seeks to grow market share for large utility scale solar in an effort to drive down its cost with billions in loan guarantees including:

  • Blythe Solar Project. US DOE approved a $2.1 billion loan guarantee for Units 1 and 2 totaling 484 MW at the Blythe Solar Power Project by Solar Trust of America, LLC. The concentrating solar thermal power plant is the first phase of a larger project to generate 1,000 MW of solar power using parabolic trough technology. The project is the first concentrating solar power (CSP) parabolic trough plant to use an air-cooled condenser unit to reduce water use by 90% compared with a water-cooled CSP facility. Southern California Edison will buy the output of the project for its renewable portfolio.
  • Ivanpah Solar Project. On April 11, 2011 US DOE approved of $1.6 billion in loan guarantees for the Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System made up of three utility-scale concentrated solar power plants in the Southern California desert. The Ivanpah project will generate 392 MW of electricity using Brightsource’s concentrating solar power (CSP) technology. Output from Brightsource will be sold to Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison Company (SCE) and interconnected to the CAISO grid from an upgraded SCE transmission line.

Collectively, USDOE has approved loan guarantees or commitments for loan guarantees totaling about $21 billion to support 22 clean energy projects across 14 states.

What should we make of all of this?

Solar energy offers the best potential for a distributed energy future but it must drive down the costs for both utility scale solar projects as well as residential scale systems if they are to be sustainable without continuing Federal subsidies.  Sunshot is the first attempt by US DOE to wean the renewable community off the unsustainable subsidy track by driving down their costs and encouraging the states and cities that seek renewable energy to get their cost adders for siting, permitting and zoning under control.  If Secretary Chu can achieve that goal for his relatively modest Sunshot investment it will be money well spent.