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DOE's SunShot Program Aims to Reach Competitive Solar By 2020

solar power tower

The quest to move the U.S. off oil has often been compared to the space race, and for good reason; if the country is to wean itself off oil before supplies drop precipitously, it will have to implement an intense moonshot-like program. Enter the Department of Energy's SunShot initiative, a $27 million program to make solar energy as cheap as fossil fuel-generated energy by 2020.

The initiative, announced this week by Energy Secretary Steven Chu, aims to cut the total costs of photovoltaic solar energy systems by 75% to approximately $1 per watt, or 6 cents per kilowatt-hour. Geothermal power currently costs 3.6 cents per kilowatt-hour, while coal goes for 5.5 cents per kilowatt-hour. The DOE's plan could, then, make solar just as attractive as coal.

The SunShot initiative will focus on improving four areas: solar cell technology, electronics to optimize solar system installation, the solar manufacturing process, and installation, design, and permitting for solar systems. This will be achieved in part through government collaboration between the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy,  the Office of Science, and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).

The DOE is also offering up $27 million for nine new solar projects from companies like 3M, 1366 Technologies, Varian Semiconductor, and PPG. The bulk of the cash ($20 million) will go toward improving supply chain efficiency—1366 Technologies, for example, scored $3 million to develop a manufacturing process that cuts down on the cost of producing silicon wafers.

The rest of the DOE's money will go toward the agency's Photovoltaic (PV) Solar Incubator Program, which speeds up the development of promising solar technologies. Companies involved include Stion (thin film solar technology), Caelux (flexible solar cell manufacturing), and Crystal Solar (new technology to process thin single crystal silicon wafers).

If the DOE's efforts fail, maybe Google can step in. The search engine giant's RE<C program is aiming to develop one gigawatt of renewable energy capacity, or enough energy to power San Francisco, at a price cheaper than coal through grants, investments, and in-house research and development projects.

Follow Fast Company on Twitter. Ariel Schwartz can be reached by email.