How to Make Solar Power Cost Competitive in 5 Years or Less

Focus on the Soft Costs

In addition to physical system design, much of the "waste" can be found in the inconsistent -- and therefore risky -- business processes associated with solar PV installation. Every PV system has to be permitted, approved, installed, inspected and connected to the grid.

"We've seen this process take anywhere from 12 to 18 months, with an enormous amount of risk on the front end. That is, if the project even makes it through," Shaffer said.

There are considerable opportunities to make these processes more streamlined and less expensive, while decreasing project risk.

"In today's economic climate, this is not something we can ignore," said Doug Payne, executive director of SolarTech. "Looking at processes that can be stripped away or steamlined will allow businesses and companies to thrive. Other large industries have achieved scale based on predictable processes and standardization. The sooner we as an industry get to that point, the better."

Getting to Scale

Stronger signs of collaboration are already starting to develop in some areas, as industry consortiums, research organizations, PV developers and manufacturers, and the U.S. Department of Energy are pursuing various initiatives to increase understanding and awareness of cost-reduction opportunities.

In August, Energy Secretary Stephen Chu kicked off the DOE's "$1/W Workshop." There, assembled experts validated the opportunities available on cutting installed BoS costs, and reached encouraging conclusions about the feasibility of the goal -- an installed PV system cost low enough to beat all new central power stations.

An entrenched incumbent such as fossil fuels requires that a low-cost solar industry has scaled enough to offer truly game-changing potential. Actions now will go a long way to streamlining future challenges that could negatively impact growth. "We have to think very carefully about how to scale this industry because it could become the largest industry in the world," Doig said.

For states like California and Colorado, lower costs would make including solar into their renewable portfolios a much more attractive and viable option. Hopefully, other states will follow their lead, continuing to add momentum to the U.S. solar market and make the transition away from fossil-fuel powered electricity.

Kelly Vaughn is a public relations specialist at Rocky Mountain Institute.

Images CC licensed by Flickr users Pink Sherbet Photography, the Department of Energy Solar Decathlon and the Port of San Diego.