DOE photovoltaic funding for years has gone to programs that promise more efficient conversion of sunlight to electricity, or in aiding solar start-up companies. It’s called “technology push.”
Now for something different. For the past year, an unusually innovative DOE program called Solar America Cities has focused on reaching out to formerly ignored, sometimes low-profile city decision makers who administer large chunks of urban real estate. It’s called “technology pull.”
The insight at DOE management was that these key folk could purchase enough solar to make its installation as common and ordinary as curbside recycling.
DOE encouragement would include matching funds, technical support, free policy analyses, and public relations suggestions to help educate relevant political participants as well as the public.
Bringing practical savvy to the table
“Tiger Teams” play a large role in underpinning the program. Personnel from Sandia, the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), the Florida Solar Energy Center, New Mexico State University, and private sector partner CH2M Hill aid city managers and staff with practical savvy as DOE personnel push the higher vision of “making solar mainstream.”
Tiger Teams are assemblages of experts put together for a particular purpose, says Tiger Team group leader Vipin Gupta (6337). They disband once the mission is completed, only to reassemble elsewhere.
“Tigers are an appropriate metaphor,” Vipin says. “Our people are independent-minded and driven. You can’t just issue an order to them. They’re decentralized, creative, and getting more and more disciplined.”
As Tiger Team member Jeannette Moore (2734) puts it more viscerally, “People in city agencies have been talking about solar for years. Usually, they’ve gotten a little sleepy. Then we show up. We tell them, we’re going to do solar right now. That wakes everyone up.”
Program started as a casual drawing on a piece of paper
The program was conceived by DOE acting program manager Tom Kimbis in a casual drawing on a piece of paper on an airplane trip. He passed it back to a colleague who thought it was a nice idea but saw no reason why anyone would participate.
They would participate, Kimbis decided, because “Cities are strapped for cash,” he said in an interview. “We’d give them money. But we’d give more than money. Two hundred k [dollars] is a lot in Ann Arbor but nothing in New York. We’d give them wording for legislation, when legislators call us for advice. A website where they could exchange ideas, so that New York could see what San Francisco was doing. And we’d give it a name — Solar America Cities — because for some reason cities like names [like Sunbelt Cities]. Amazingly, it makes people want to move there.”
The remarkably energetic effort celebrated its first anniversary in Tucson April 14-16.
One-hundred twenty involved participants from 25 selected cities (chosen competitively from among 50 to 75 applicants, says Kimbis) explained or absorbed lessons of success or failure in attempts to use solar not only to save energy and lower greenhouse gases but generate low-interest loans, foster start-up companies, attract technically educated personnel, create high-paying jobs, and develop solar education courses. Other areas under discussion included solidifying local political support, writing workable inspection codes, supplying wording for appropriate legislation when asked, and choosing appropriate and sometimes “out-of-the-box” materials and locations for various forms of solar.
“I’m amazed this is a DOE project,” says Mustapha Beydoun, a research scientist at the Houston Advanced Research Center. “It’s so inclusive. It’s good to see who’s tried what and what works and what doesn’t,” he said of the conference, “so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Problems often come up exactly where you never expected them to.”
Cost of solar coming down as other energy prices go up
While from a flat financial viewpoint, the dour view is correct that solar is still too expensive to be practical — in some areas, three times the cost of generating electricity from coal — some attendees pointed out that solar power is strongest when the demand for electricity is greatest, at the hottest part of summer days. Thus, it could be used to lower the number of power plants needed to meet air conditioning and other power needs of these peak hours.
Solar electricity also requires no water to convert its fuel into electricity — a possible problem for other methods of generating power as fresh water becomes scarcer.
An oft-repeated mantra, often in the form of graphs, at the convention was that the costs of other fuels are rising while the cost of converting sunlight to electricity is declining.
Rick Scheu, CEO of Portland, Ore.-based King Solar Products, said that administrators in Germany had decided it was useless to compare the various subsidies for different forms of energy production: “About solar, they decided, ‘We need it and we’re putting it in.’”
Austin Mayor Will Wynn (“That’s really my name. My parents did it to me,”) said that city buildings will all be 100 percent alternative-energy run by Jan. 1, 2009, with 15 megawatts of solar online by 2012 and 100 solar megawatts by 2020.
“I tell people that Texas was America’s number-one energy state in the 20th century, and if we want to remain that in the 21st, we need to work on starting up companies that harness the sun,” he said.
So the enthusiasm was there, along with more practical motives like the need to meet legislated requirements on alternative energy production, the carrot of tax incentives, and the funding and technical assistance provided by the DOE program.
The program distributed $200,000 cash to each chosen city for the execution of its developing citywide solar adoption plan, and also makes available a kind of gift certificate of $200,000 drawn on DOE that pays for work by Sandia and other labs for solar technical assistance. The cities contribute, on average, $200,000 of their own, though larger cities like Boston and New York contribute far more. The city population must be at least 100,000.
Asked by Lab News what will bring other cities to the table once the two-year DOE-funded program ceases in fiscal 2009, DOE program “market transformation director” Charlie Hemmeline said that the agency’s solar programs weren’t going away, and suggested that cities later interested in getting help to follow the path laid out by the 25 chosen cities might not find a deaf ear at DOE.
And there’s more. The Solar American Showcase program and the Government Solar Installation Program are less publicized but equally real parts of DOE’s solar effort.
The showcase program provides $200,000 and Tiger Team technical assistance to companies, universities, cities, or states interested in trying new solar technologies. The winners include Forest City Military Communities in Hawaii, the city of San Jose, the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla., Montclair State University in New Jersey, and a Housing Authority project in northeast Denver.
The government installation program provides solar technical assistance to federal entities.