How to make solar even cheaper? Make it ‘plug-and-play’

The fast, steep drop in the price of solar photovoltaics (PV) around the world has pushed many solar-power companies to (and sometimes over) the financial brink, but it’s been great for homeowners and others who couldn’t afford the technology just a few short years ago.

There’s another way in which solar energy could be made cheaper still, though: by finding a way to make solar panels “plug-and-play” … that is, so easy to install, they could go from store shelf to generating electricity on someone’s rooftop in a matter of hours, rather than days, weeks or months.

Together with mounting hardware, so-called “soft” costs — the price of permitting, installation and interconnection — still account for more than half the total expense of a home solar-energy system, notes the US Department of Energy (DOE). That’s why the department is launching a new initiative to speed up the development of plug-and-play PVs.

The DOE is making available $5 million in funding to support innovations to “fundamentally change the design and installation of residential PV systems, reducing costs for homeowners and simplifying installations and grid connectivity.” Over the next four years, it hopes to seek another $20 million from Congress to promote those goals.

Just as with cheap photovoltaics, though, the emergence of plug-and-play solar could come with a downside: if solar-energy systems could be made as easy to install as, say, click-lock flooring, what happens to the much-vaunted growth of green jobs for solar-panel installers? Like the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for …

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