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Obama's Big Plan to Make Solar Energy More Efficient and Affordable

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Earlier this month President Obama launched an ambitious plan to move states away from coal-based power and towards more renewable energy generation. Now he’s focusing on the consumer side with a suite of initiatives to help Americans collect energy at home, encourage manufacturers to make more efficient appliances, and—perhaps most critically—boost research to innovate the industry.

Among the announcements made at today’s National Clean Energy Summit are incentives to help homeowners borrow money for energy upgrades and a better way for manufactuers to measure energy efficiency. But Obama’s also giving solar science some cash: $24 million will go to 11 research projects that are working to make the technology cheaper and more efficient. This is a huge deal. Imagine if only one of those projects provided the breakthrough in materials or affordability that solar needs.


Although the plan nods at other energy sources, solar is definitely the key part of Obama’s energy vision—he’s already offered tax credits and launched a solar program for low-income neighborhoods. In fact, partially because of Obama’s work, solar energy is the fastest-growing energy industry in the country at the moment, and the numbers are pretty stunning:

Last year, the United States brought online as much solar energy every three weeks as it did in all of 2008, and the solar industry added jobs 10 times faster than the rest of the economy. Since the beginning of 2010, the average cost of a solar electric system has dropped by 50 percent. In fact, distributed solar prices fell 10 to 20 percent in 2014 alone and currently 44 states have pricing structures that encourage increased penetration of distributed energy resources.


A focus on distributed energy is the key here—the ability to, say, gather solar energy on your roof instead of having it piped into your home from a centralized plant. This is by far the smartest way to collect energy because you don’t have to use more energy to move it around. This is where better technology can absolutely help—to make the hardware accessible, improve storage (a la Tesla batteries) and bring costs down.

Here’s where something like Google Sunroof, the tool announced last week that helps property owners install and monitor solar-collecting tech, comes into play. This is kind of the missing piece for giving homeowners control over their energy fate, not only because it helps demystify wonky information about placement, efficiency, and types of panels, but also because it can help consumers make the cost-benefit analysis that’s so important when getting someone to switch from one technology to another. Sunroof will only be available in limited places at first, but with Google’s help, this kind of tool, paired with Obama’s announcement today, could truly help make solar power universal.


AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File