Solar In A Day With Plug-And-Play Gets SunShot Aid

Could installing solar be as easy as setting up a home-office printer? It sounds pie in the sky, but it’s a vision the U.S. Department of Energy is pursuing with gusto. The DOE on Friday announced SunShot grants of $21 million over the the next five years aimed at making plug-and-play PV a reality.

The funding is part of a broad effort by the Obama administration to bring down the cost of solar power, with a particular focus on what are known as “soft” costs, everything except the module itself, basically. The DOE says these aspects of an installation can make up more than half the cost of going solar, and the most recent Tracking the Sun report said such costs, while in decline, have not been falling as quickly as module costs.

image via U.S. Department of Energy

The funding will go toward two different research efforts, the DOE said:

Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Fraunhofer USA’s Center for Sustainable Energy Systems will develop PV technologies that allow homeowners to easily select the right solar system for their house and install, wire and connect to the grid. Additionally, North Carolina State University in Raleigh will lead a project to create standard PV components and system designs that can adapt simply to any residential roof and can be installed and connected to the grid quickly and efficiently.

Manufacturers have made moves toward simplifying home solar, and Westinghouse even called its “Instant Connect” product, introduced earlier this year, the industry’s first plug-and-play system. But while that package brought together many of the components a homeowner might need – adding racking to the panel, for instance – the SunShot vision goes several steps further.

According to the DOE, the work in Cambridge assumes a home begins with a smart meter that’s PV-ready. The homeowner would use preconfigured cabling to connect the new solar system to the meter, the utility would remotely grant permission to run the solar, and just like that power would be produced for use in the house or to go onto the grid.

The work in Raleigh, the DOE said, will take a “broader systems perspective encompassing the PV supply chain, codes and standards, regulations, inspection, and marketability.”

In addition to these residential solar initiatives, the DOE also said it would pour $8 million into two projects aimed at utility-scale solar, backing projects that could “help utilities and grid operators better forecast when, where and how much solar power will be produced at U.S. solar energy plants.”

Teams comprising industry, national laboratory and university partners will work together on these projects, the DOE said, with the University Corporation for Atmosphere Research focused on improving methods for measuring weather and atmospheric conditions and making forecasts, while the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center is cooking up Watt-sun, a cousin to the famous Watson technology that “will leverage deep machine learning and self-adjusting voting algorithms to decide between various forecasting models and expert systems.”

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.