Sustainable Women Series: Driving Down Solar Costs: A 70 Percent Reduction in 5 Years


Launched by the Department of Energy in February 2011, the SunShot Initiative was designed to make solar energy cost-competitive by 2020. In 2010, the cost of one solar watt was $3.80. The SunShot project was attempting to reduce solar costs to $1 per watt or $0.06 per kilowatt-hour, an almost 75 percent decrease in the 2010 cost. Many perceived this goal as overly ambitious, but by 2015, the cost had already seen more than a 70 percent reduction, coming in at $1.64 per watt. Learn more about the SunShot Initiative, solar soft costs, and future hurdles to large scale solar integration with the Soft Costs Program Manager for the SunShot Initiative Dr. Elaine Ulrich.

What is the SunShot Initiative? What is the goal of the program?

The SunShot Initiative was launched in 2011 to drive down the cost of solar so that it is cost-competitive with conventional forms of energy by the end of the decade. SunShot does this by supporting the efforts of private companies, universities, and national laboratories to pursue innovations in photovoltaic and concentrated solar power technologies, as well as through market transformation, soft cost decreasing and system integration. Halfway through the initiative, the solar industry is 70 percent of the way to achieving SunShot’s cost target of $0.06 per kilowatt-hour for utility-scale photovoltaic (PV) solar power.

Tell us about the soft costs associated with solar. How does the reduction of soft costs make solar more accessible for businesses and homeowners?

Soft costs are the non-hardware costs associated with going solar—like installation, permits and connection fees—which can now make almost two-thirds of what you’ll pay for rooftop solar. Time is also a soft cost, it can take from a few days to as long as six months for customers to go solar, adding cost and creating customer frustration. Training is another soft cost. Preparing the workforce to enter the solar industry, as well as providing the real estate agents, regulators and firefighters in fields related to solar energy with the basic solar training they need to do their jobs, comes at a cost. Soft costs are a key driver in reducing the cost of solar and making it easier for more Americans to choose clean energy.

Tell us about the Solar Powering America by Recognizing Communities (SPARC) program.

SPARC—which is  now known as SolSmart—is a national recognition program managed by the International City/County Management Association and the Solar Foundation and is designed to spur local governments to grow their solar market. The SolSmart designation will encourage communities across the country to seek and earn recognition for achievements that distinguish them from their peers as they become more solar-friendly, and in doing so, inspire local entrepreneurs to go solar while establishing consistency in solar practices across the country. In addition, the program provides robust technical assistance to communities, which includes offering expert technical assistance, providing an onsite advisor, and facilitating peer learning opportunities.

What are the objectives of SPARC and how are these objectives being met?

One key objective is to cut the red tape that many Americans face when they try to go solar.

A recent study showed that the cost to go solar is as much as $3,000 higher in communities with challenging solar policies.
This program will work directly with local governments to create a more uniform solar policy landscape that will make it easier for solar markets to flourish in communities throughout the U.S. The program aims to recognize at least 300 communities during the funding period and engage hundreds more.

How were awardees chosen?

The awardees were chosen through an open, competitive selections process, which puts proposals through rigorous review from experts in the industry.

Tell us about your awardees — The Solar Foundation and the International City/County Management Association. What is the SolSmart designation and technical assistance program?

The International City/County Management Association spearheads the SolSmart recognition program, which includes awards and competitions to celebrate communities and other stakeholders that break new ground and make remarkable progress. The Solar Foundation coordinates the technical assistance to support the communities pursuing SolSmart designation. They are in the process of creating a network of fellows throughout the country, who will be placed in target communities to assist in understaffed local government offices and provide expertise on how to grow the solar market there.

The SolSmart website,, has all the resources you need to get involved. Encourage your community to apply for SolSmart designation!

What do you think the next “hurdle” to large scale solar integration is?

Unlocking solar for the nearly 50 percent of households and businesses that cannot put solar on their rooftops will be key to large scale adoption in the future. Community solar will help to open the market to customers who have not previously been able to go solar. According to research from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, community solar could represent a third to a half of the distributed PV market in 2020 — growing cumulative PV deployment growth in by 2020 of as much as 11.0 gigawatts, and representing upwards of $16.3 billion in cumulative investment.

Tell us about your personal career trajectory. What was your path into sustainability?

I started out studying physics. During graduate school I got involved in science policy and heard Dr. James Hansen presenting his work on climate before Inconvenient Truth was released. It motivated me to pursue a AAAS fellowship in Washington, DC. I had the privilege of working for (then) Senator Ken Salazar on energy issues and eventually landed in the office of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords who was a huge solar champion. My physics background meshed well with solar technology and policy, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Working on solar in the SunShot Initiative has given me the opportunity to work with a fantastic team on some of the most interesting and impactful challenges in energy for the past 5 years.

Dr. Elaine Ulrich is the Soft Costs Program Manager for the SunShot Initiative at the Department of Energy. Her team focuses on finding ways to reduce the non-hardware costs of solar, to perpetuate market growth through support for state and community development and technical assistance programs, and to eliminate obstacles to solar adoption. Her team’s also involved with information and data assets, financial and business model development, workforce development and training programs, and policy and regulatory analysis. She received a Ph.D. in optical science from the University of Arizona and a B.A. in physics from Wellesley College. Prior to her current position, Dr. Ulrich worked for the former U.S. Senator Ken Salazar, U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology, the Energy Department’s Office of Strategic Planning and Analysis, and in the office of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, where she worked to build a comprehensive solar energy portfolio. She was also a former American Physical Society/American Association for the Advancement of Science policy fellow.

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Talia Haller, HeatSpring Fellow Dedicated to tackling the climate change challenge, Talia Haller strives to make an impact by perpetuating the renewable energy revolution and promoting sustainable development. In 2014, she enrolled at the University of Washington to pursue a double major in Business Administration and International Studies with a focus on energy & the environment. Talia assists with the Sustainable Women Series and works with industry experts to generate articles for the HeatSpring blog.

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