Balance of System
RMI is currently researching ways to streamline the solar "balance-of-system" elements, which refers to the non-modular costs of solar panels -- wiring, converters, racking systems and various components -- which make up about half of the total installed cost of solar.
A Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory study, Tracking the Sun II (pdf), found that these costs declined from 1998 through 2007, causing a considerable impact on the overall installed cost of solar. But costs have remained stagnant since. In identifying the elements that drive this side of the equation, we can find areas for improvement.
For instance, the actual assembly of solar PV systems is highly labor intensive. Installers often spend an exorbitant amount of time on-site putting together non- factory assembled racking systems. Instead, what if they were manufactured in a standardized manner, allowing for easy and quick on-site installation?
The fractured nature of the solar market is another hurdle. Today, a host of non-interchangeable, proprietary technologies has prevented significant cost reductions. In addition, without federal guidelines, a hodgepodge of undefined best practices and regulations has created state-by-state disparity in installed costs of solar. Standardizing regulations and technologies could encourage greater adoption and, in turn, economies of scale.
Putting the U.S. to Work
Healthy competition is a good thing for the United States. And if we need to invoke a green race to kick-start our role in the global solar PV market, then all the better.
But there is much we can do in the domestic market. We can bring costs in line to create greater demand, and we can build a stronger, thriving industry. In doing so, we'll create new jobs and develop a generation of workers skilled in green technologies to power our new energy future.