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Bringing Clean Competitive Solar Power to Scale

Renewable EarthRMI is accelerating the transition to a distributed and affordable U.S. electricity system that is powered 80 percent by renewable energy. The current system is highly dependent upon large, distant, fossil fueled plants that deliver electricity over expensive and aging transmission systems. Non-renewable resources generate 87 percent of the nation’s electricity—in particular, 43 percent from coal, 24 percent from natural gas, and 20 percent from nuclear.

RMI is helping to drive the widespread adoption of affordable solar photovoltaic as it has the greatest potential to provide disruptive change and engender an electrical system that is distributed and highly renewable.

Installing a rooftop solar system now makes pure economic sense for about 5 percent of buildings in the U.S. And yet, only about 0.2 percent actually have a PV system. In most areas, solar PV remains an expensive energy option, even as module costs have decreased significantly, due to a complex tangle of “soft costs,” including utility interconnection requirements, financing expectations, and permitting codes.

Identifying the Solar BoS Opportunity

Solar InstallationIn 2008, we identified these balance-of-system (BoS) soft costs—all the related solar energy system costs besides the panels themselves—as a key threat to widespread solar adoption. Over the next three years, deep industry analysis and sustained philanthropic support allowed RMI to test various hypotheses and engage with industry experts to help ensure that solar electricity can become cost competitive and a larger part of the country’s energy mix.

As a result of RMI’s research and convening efforts, in 2011 the U.S. Department of Energy asked RMI to run an advisory workshop for its “SunShot” program, a project aiming to reduce the cost of solar energy systems by 75 percent by 2020. Through the SunShot initiative, the DOE has granted more than $145 million for advanced solar technologies, including BoS cost reductions.

Driving Further Innovation

Today, largely due to RMI’s efforts to identify the opportunities in reducing BoS costs, there are now a variety of different efforts taking place. RMI is acting as a collaborator, convener, and thought leader throughout the solar PV ecosystem to create demand by reducing costs and risk and developing innovative business models.

RMI is engaged in several projects funded by private donors, industry, and the DOE to help further accelerate solar PV adoption:

  • Solar Soft Costs Roadmap: RMI is working with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to substantially reduce solar photovoltaic (PV) “soft” costs over the next eight years.
  • SIMPLE BoS: RMI is developing design criteria and an analytical framework in conjunction with the Georgia Tech Research Institute that is guiding the development of new PV module and racking designs.
  • Innovative Solar Business Models: RMI is working with the DOE to investigate how high PV penetration levels disrupt standard utility models and to identify the sources of value that utilities could capture to encourage them to actively support widespread solar adoption.
  • Solar Financing: We are working with partners to develop new financing solutions that help remove the large, upfront capital burden on owners and developers and to develop processes that allow investors to assess the impact of solar PV on both immediate and long-term risk.  This includes the trusolarTM initiative and our recent release of the NREL-RMI soft cost roadmap.

Past Projects: Visit Solar PV Balance of System to see what we've done in the past.

Solar Fields Invest With Us in a Brighter Energy Future

Freeing America from its dependence on vast amounts of fossil fuels is impossible without transforming the electricity sector. In “Reinventing Fire,” RMI outlined a vision for a 2050 U.S. electricity system that is affordable and reliable, but also environmentally sustainable and secure.

Today, electricity production annually generates:

  • 40 percent of U.S. carbon emissions
  • $100 billion in health impacts
  • $160 billion in related costs from blackouts and power outages
  • Untold additional costs from air, land, and water pollution

A distributed, smarter electricity paradigm would mean a more resilient system; where blackouts caused by weather or cyber terrorism needn’t result in the kind of economic hardship they do now. We can create a system that innovates clean technologies, creates more and better jobs locally, and results in economic renewal for our country.

This transformation requires coordinated action, starting with getting the rules right and allowing fair competition of all resources. The key is to set the stage and open the door for actors to make intelligent, economically and socially optimal decisions. As an independent, trusted, non-profit organization, RMI is uniquely positioned to bring diverse stakeholders together to break the gridlock inherent among the players in the electricity system.

Will you be part of it?

Earth image, installation image, and solar panel image courtesy of Shutterstock.com.