Intelligent Energy

GE's plan to make rooftop solar more affordable

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General Electric has launched two research projects that aim to cut the cost of rooftop solar installations in half.

The price of solar photovoltaic panels may have dropped precipitously in the past year, but the rest of the system including the installation and permitting costs -- which accounts for up to half of the final tally -- have not. General Electric aims to change that with two research projects tied to the Energy Department's Sunshot Initiative to cut solar costs to $1 per watt.

Today, the average cost of installing a solar system on a typical home is $6.50 per watt, or $32,500. We want to cut the cost by more than half. At less than half the price, solar systems will be practical for millions of homeowners in the United States, Charlie Korman, manager of solar energy programs at GE Global Research, said in a release Wednesday. To achieve such a radical cost reduction, new technologies are needed to simplify and standardize how solar installations are made. The process has to be as routine as putting a new roof on your home.

The two research projects will focus on how to improve residential and commercial solar installations to drive down the total cost. That means researching ways to improve components such as inverters, switch gear, track and mounting systems.

About 8 percent of the U.S. residential solar market uses systems that have integrated microinverters into the photovoltaic modules, Rui Zhou with GE Global Research noted in a blog post today. While there are advantages to such system, existing microinverters are costly, have less than ideal efficiency and some functional redundancy, which creates a barrier to reaching an unsubsidized residential system cost of $3 per watt, Zhou said.

The first $2.9 million research project will focus on making a new microinverter that is functionally integrated within the alternating current-module frame to reduce packaging and material costs. The researchers also are developing a new intelligent circuit breaker that will cut the microinverter costs, according to Zhou.

The second $3 million project aims to create pre-wired and pre-configured components to simplify commercial rooftops installations. GE researchers have proposed designing individual PVs interconnected using flexible hinges. The deign would allow a string of modules to be folded for transportation and storage into a compact form. When it's time for the installation, they can be unfolded, placed into a lightweight, low profile track and then mounted on the roof.  The entire assembly weight would be about 1 pound per square foot compared to traditional commercial installations that weigh between 2 and 3 pounds per square foot, Zhou said.

Photo: GE

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Kirsten Korosec

Contributing Editor

Kirsten Korosec has written for Technology Review, Marketing News, The Hill, BNET and Bloomberg News. She holds a degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is based in Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure