Good Solar Project? Sandia Helps Investors Bank On It

Renewable energy development might not need as much public subsidy if cheaper financing were available, and cheaper financing might be available if investors were convinced that projects would deliver as promised.

It’s this train of thought that led the U.S. Department of Energy to back – through its wide-ranging pro-solar SunShot Initiative – a Sandia National Laboratories-led effort to establish five regional test centers where manufacturers can assess the performance, reliability and, ultimately, the “bankability” of large-scale photovoltaic systems.

solar regional test centers

Artist-enhanced photo of future regional test center sites at Sandia’s National Solar Thermal Test Facility. (image via Sandia National Laboratories/Vicente R. Garcia)

“With the trend in the solar industry toward larger systems and greater capital investment – substantial amounts of money are going into this field – the financial community is increasingly scrutinizing how well these systems operate,” Charles Hanley, manager of photovoltaic and distributed systems integration at Sandia, said in a statement. “The RTCs will provide enhanced monitoring and improved performance prediction capabilities for new technologies being introduced to the market.”

Sandia is managing regional test centers at various stages of development in Albuquerque, N.M.; Orlando, Fla.; Burlington, Vt; and Las Vegas. The National Renewable Energy Lab is overseeing the fifth center, in Denver.

According to Sandia, the idea for the test centers grew out of a workshop on PV manufacturing that included solar module makers and the people who invest in solar projects.

“It was clear from the workshop that the broad community wants better ways to quantify technical aspects to support the bankability of PV systems,” Jennifer Granata of Sandia’s solar group said in a statement.

Existing PV test sites could only service small systems, not the billion-buck behemoths that have begun to go in – and that the Obama administration would like to see more of.

The new RTCs are putting in infrastructure up to one megawatt, allowing several systems of different sizes to be tested at one time, Sandia said.

“With lab expertise,” Granata said,” the centers will be able to “provide an independent, third-party perspective, and test beyond the standard protocols to improve our understanding.”

And with five different locations, manufacturers and potential investors will be able to test a project’s viability in the kind of climate it will actually have to function in, a key factor with solar power.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.