Manager in U.S. Dept. of Energy outlines rise of solar energy

Caroline Fassett, Madison Weaver, News Writer, Staff Writer

Joe Stekli, the concentrating solar power (CSP) program manager of the SunShot Initiative of the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy (EERE) within the U.S. Department of Energy, gave a talk on the successes and challenges present in the solar market energy industry on April 14 in Academic West. 

Stekli said that EERE is currently focusing on “improving reliability and durability of panels, increasing their efficiency, and lowering material costs.” They also hope to reduce the soft costs of solar energy.

“If you compare us to the rest of the world … Germany has about the same solar resources as Alaska … but is far below us in the cost of installing residential systems, and that is solely because of soft costs,” Stekli said.

The goal of EERE is to procure the occurrence of a cost parity, which is the implementation of an alternative energy source that generates power at a levelized cost of electricity that is less than or equal to the price of purchasing power from the electricity grid, without subsidy for solar energy. Five years into the company, they’re evidently 70 percent of the way there.

The field of solar energy is making vast improvements, with solar capacity growing 30 fold during Barack Obama’s presidency. Currently, 27 gigawatts of solar energy is integrated into the United States—enough solar energy to power around four million homes.

“As of January 2016, we now have 209,000 workers employed in the U.S. solar industry … more people employed [are] working on solar energy in the U.S. than on coal and natural gas and oil combined,” Stekli said.

In 2015, EERE installed 57 gigawatts of solar energy globally. Stekli shared his prediction that, sometime in the decade 2020, EERE will have cumulatively installed more than 20 gigawatts of solar energy in the United States.

Additionally, states are growing more independent in expanding the installation of solar energy.

“In the U.S. there’s obviously a federal incentive for installing solar energy, but there are a lot of state incentives as well … they [the states] are being weaned off of the federal incentives,” Stekli said.

However, while Stekli’s company is optimistic about reducing costs of solar energy power over time, it remains an extremely expensive form of sustainable energy.

“The smallest [concentrated solar power plant] that we installed required about $1.5 billion in capital. It’s really difficult to raise that much money if the government’s not providing it,” Stekli said.

While Stekli said that EERE is still figuring out ways to better manage new technologies, a significant reduction in costs will be yielded should they succeed in improving the efficiency of solar cells. However, because a new U.S. president will be sworn into office come January, the future of solar energy funding is up in the air.

Stekli said that, from working in the U.S. Department of Energy, he has learned that not every problem can be solved with science.

“You can provide the best solar cell in the world,”  Stekli said, “but this cell is useless without sufficient capital and support.”

“I was surprised to see how much they’ve been able to drop the price of pv [photovoltaic] solar. I was also surprised that most of the cost comes from installation fees, rather than from the actual manufacturing of the panels,” Matt De Santis ’17 said.

“It was definitely interesting developing [solar energy] policies as well as the new technologies that are out there, and the barriers to adopting the new technologies, as well,” Alex Breakstone ’17 said.

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