The Energy Department Is Trying To Make Solar Panels Cheaper To Install

CREDIT: AP Photo/Franklin Reyes

The day when solar panels become cost-competitive with fossil fuels is getting closer.

For many people, living in a solar-powered home is a pipe dream. Local rebates, federal tax credits and plummeting hardware prices help, but in the end, panel installation will generally cost the average homeowner at least $20,000.

This is largely due to so-called “soft costs,” required to fulfill permitting and inspection obligations that can account for as much as 60 percent of total panel installation, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. An Energy Department study recently found that more than 35 percent of panel installers avoid selling in certain areas because of permitting difficulties.

They’re aiming to change that. On Wednesday, the Energy Department announced an investment of $12 million to make solar permitting easier for approximately 147 million people in 25 states. Eight teams — including the City University of New York, the Washington State Department of Commerce and the Clean Energy States Alliance — will participate in the department’s “Rooftop Solar Challenge,” a project designed to reduce the administrative barriers surrounding solar installation.

From the announcement:

The eight teams announced today will help further expand the reach of innovative strategies that are making it easier, faster and cheaper for more homeowners and businesses to finance and install solar systems. These awardees will develop and replicate creative solutions that help standardize complicated permitting and interconnection processes that often vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction; facilitate easy, cheaper bulk purchasing; and support user-friendly, fast online applications.

The Rooftop challenge started as a competition for proposals to reduce soft costs, initially receiving 46 applications from 17 states in 2011. The other groups participating in the initiative are the Iowa Economic Development Authority, the Mid-America Regional Council, the California Center for Sustainable Energy, Optony Inc, and Broward County, Florida.

The competition seems to be doing much better that the Bureau of Land Management’s first competitive auction of federal lands for companies to develop utility-scale solar projects. Despite receiving more than two dozen expressions of interest for the October auction, the BLM failed to receive a single bid on three parcels of Colorado land designated as Solar Energy Zones.

Those parcels will remain open for a potential sale in a future auction, but BLM has not announced yet if another competition would be held.