Credit: George Danby

Few energy technologies capture the public’s imagination like solar power. The ever-present sun is so powerful, it has long fueled the belief that all of mankind’s heating and cooling needs will one day be satisfied by the sun — all without greenhouse gas emissions.

Harnessing the breathtaking potential of solar energy cannot happen without mass-scale deployment of residential and commercial rooftop installation. For decades, that goal has been thwarted by the steep cost of installation, putting the price of solar beyond what many low- to moderate-income households can afford.

What if there were an alternative solution that would not only slash the price of rooftop solar units but allow installation within two hours or less? What if those components could be easily and safely connected to a home’s electric system and the utility grid via a simple plug?

Research by the Fraunhofer USA Center for Sustainable Energy Systems CSE (Fraunhofer CSE), a renowned nonprofit international clean energy applied R&D center, shows those goals are far from an impossible dream. A project team at the lab recently directed the testing and successful deployment of a plug-and-play photovoltaic system pilot project, which used preconfigured wiring, touch-safe connectors, adhesively mounted lightweight photovoltaic modules, solar-ready connectors and specialized software to make the solar installation a quick, easy and safe experience.

The system was so easy to use, a team of three people, with no prior photovoltaic installation experience, installed and commissioned a 3-kilowatt plug-and-play system in less than 75 minutes.

Better still, the plug-and-play system cost roughly $1.50 per watt fully installed, less than half of the current U.S. average for photovoltaic systems. Designed with integrated system architecture that simplifies code compliance and automates inspection and interconnection, the system even allows for remote permitting, inspection and same-day approval.

Projects like the plug-and-play system are designed to address the “soft costs” associated with rooftop solar, which include permit fees, equipment financing, specialized installers, marketing and more. Soft costs often represent nearly two-thirds of a rooftop solar system’s price.

The plug-and-play project, which was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative, is one of many promising technologies that can lower the cost barrier and support wider deployment of solar power. Recent signs suggest the market is growing more receptive.

In late 2016, Tesla CEO Elon Musk unveiled an integrated solar roof and battery storage product designed to slash the cost of rooftop installation. The Solar Energy Industries Association continues to promote the lower-cost benefits of “building-integrated photovoltaics,” which are designed to serve as the outer layer of a structure while generating electricity for on-site use or export to the grid.

In the United Kingdom, a company called Revenogen is aggressively developing “roll-up” solar that can be easily rolled out in a backyard, like a blanket, to capture solar energy on days the sun is shining strong.

We also are looking forward to being able to report soon how various aspects of Fraunhofer CSE’s plug-and-play technologies are being implemented by private sector manufacturers, software vendors and utilities.

What’s driving demand for a breakthrough in low-cost rooftop solar installation is increasing public awareness about the gap between the benefits of solar power and the financial capacity of most Americans to mount panels on their homes.

A recent research study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that household rooftops across the country could provide some 320 gigawatts of solar energy — or enough to power nearly 225 million homes. But as of the end of 2017, the total installed solar capacity in the United States of all kinds — including utility-scale arrays on closed landfills and in fields and deserts — was just one-sixth of the potential capacity of American rooftops alone.

In early May, California became the first state in the country to mandate that all homes built in 2020 or thereafter must install solar panels on their roofs, adding new urgency to the need to make rooftop solar more affordable for more Americans.

The continuing global clean energy “revolution” is truly exciting, and roof-top solar is poised to play a critical role in that revolution in the decades to come. For millions of Americans, low-cost solar can’t arrive soon enough. The good news is, the technological breakthroughs required to make low-cost solar commonplace are now right within our reach.

Dr. Christian Hoepfner, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Fraunhofer USA Center for Sustainable Energy Systems CSE in Boston.

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