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DOE's Plug-and-Play Solar Program Holds Promise, but What About Permits?

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April 25, 2012

DOE's Plug-and-Play Solar Program Holds Promise, but What About Permits?

By Cheryl Kaften
TMCnet Contributor


As part of the SunShot Initiative, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) will offer up to $5 million in funding this year to support the development of “plug-and-play” photovoltaic (PV) systems that can be purchased, installed, and—theoretically— operational in one day.

"Providing families and businesses with new choices to use American energy resources that can save them money is an important part of President Obama's all-of-the above energy strategy,” said Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. “The Department's announcement today supporting plug-and-play solar energy technologies will help make it easier and cheaper for consumers to adopt clean, affordable solar energy, while supporting U.S. manufacturing leadership in the next generation of clean energy technologies and diversifying America's energy portfolio."

This effort is part of the DOE’s broader strategy to spur solar power deployment by reducing non-hardware, or “soft” costs such as installation, permitting, and grid interconnection, which currently amount to more than half of the total price of residential systems.  

The department envisions that plug-and-play PV systems could be installed without special training or tools, and simply plugged into a PV-ready circuit—through which an automatic detection system would initiate communication between the solar energy system and the utility. Plug-and-play systems already are in wide use in the computer and automotive industries.

Not so fast

However, when speaking exclusively to Green Technology World, Deep Patel, founder and CEO of Los Angeles-based, he said there is a significant stumbling block to implementation of the plug-and-play plan. “Technically, it’s not anything new to plug solar into a wall outlet, but will utilities and municipalities accept the interconnection?” he asked, adding, “That’s where work needs to be done. If there were some federal law giving consumers the ability to install solar arrays under 1 kilowatt (kW) without the paperwork and fees, it would certainly facilitate plug-and-play. Otherwise, after they buy the systems, consumers will be faced with getting building permits and engaging in a months-long approvals process. Unless the DOE gets utility and local government buy-in, this won’t work smoothly.”

Cassandra Kling, vice president of Sales at New Jersey-based Suntuity—which designs, builds and maintains renewable energy solutions for residential, commercial and utility-scale markets around the world—perceives the same problem, but is more optimistic. She sees the funding as a driver for the solar installation sector. “Solar energy technology has advanced over the years such that many products have become much closer to plug-and-play.  One technology that is quickly becoming commercially available is what we refer to as an AC Module.  What this means is that the inverter is built into the solar panel so that the panel now generates alternating current, just like you get from an outlet. 

“However,” Kling notes, “if you are going to put the plug-and-play array on the roof of your house or commercial building, someone is still going to have to put it up there [and that will be good for installers]. For a residential system, that can be done in one day.  Our company can already do an installation in a day for a residential system, once we have the permits in place.  So the permitting process is probably the only real barrier to one-day sale and installation.  There will be other ‘backyard’ solar options available, as well, that should greatly expand the residential market.”

Monique Hanis, spokesperson for the Solar Energy Industries Association, a major U.S. solar trade organization, believes that SEIA members will benefit overall from the advancements in technology and the funding offered by the program.  “These kinds of innovations are driving the exponential growth we see in the solar industry. In 2011, installed solar doubled and we expect to see the same growth this year,” she remarked.

Plug-and-play partnerships

As part of a planned five-year program, the Energy Department will invest an initial $5 million this year for two projects that will develop innovative plug-and-play prototypes through partnerships with universities, utilities, and other stakeholders. The department plans to make an additional request of $20 million to Congress over the next four years to support these efforts.  For more information, see the full solicitation.

The SunShot Initiative is a collaborative national effort to make solar energy cost competitive with other forms of energy by the end of the decade. Inspired by President Kennedy’s “Moon Shot” program that put the first man on the moon, SunShot highlights the need for American competitiveness in the clean energy race.

Edited by Jamie Epstein

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