The Road to Solar’s Future? Getting Mean and Lean

""After RMI launched our Roadmap to 2020 on soft cost reductions with NREL, we realized the U.S. solar industry needed to double down on the most challenging areas identified in the roadmap. At the Solar Power International conference this past October in Chicago, more than 70 solar developers, equipment manufacturers, researchers, installers, DOE staff, and industry representatives attended RMI and NREL’s “Soft Cost Impact Forum.”

As seen below, the summary roadmap charts scream in crimson red about the costs of installation labor. It’s highly uncertain that installation costs in the U.S. can reach low enough levels to realize DOE SunShot targets by 2020, and the cost trajectory looks like it will hit some pretty rough waters in just three years

click to enlarge graphic

About a third of the Impact Forum participants broke out into an action group focused on installation labor solutions (extended notes available here). After brainstorming industry gaps and opportunities, then prioritizing what could really move the needle to lower installation costs, four potential big wins rose to the surface.

A PV Standards Body

What: An integrator process standards body dedicated to cradle-to-grave process and hardware standards, including clear, appropriate, and standardized installation bidding for solar PV installations.

Why: Increased transparency of true costs of projects enables much more efficient project execution. At a minimum, a standard operating language for the construction of rooftop PV systems could increase the accuracy of bids from installers to their financiers/integrators resulting in:

  • Lower lease and power purchase agreement (PPA) costs: The cost of financed projects will go down due to the reduction or (preferably) even elimination of the “fuzziness” of existing bids. If you need a new alternator for a 2005 Toyota Tacoma, there’s a standard guidebook for the flat rate of that part anywhere for auto mechanics and their customers. RS Means, the de facto standard in construction cost estimates, is an even closer parallel to solar PV bidding. PV integrators need similar cost standards from installers.
  • Reduced installer administrative costs: A clear methodology of how to present jobs to integrators—eliminating reworks and specialized training for each new integrator or integrator program—would mean less administrative costs.
  • The ability to find the lowest cost, yet still quality, installers: While integrators can see total $/Watt bids today with some finer (albeit inconsistent) resolution, a common bidding system would reveal those cutting corners—where lower cost may not be lower LCOE (due to higher future O&M or underproduction issues)—and elevate those who are truly more efficient, and perhaps the equipment that contributes to that efficiency.
  • Reduced misaligned incentives within installation companies between sales teams and installation crews, where desires to sell larger projects may be at odds with the desire to construct simple, optimized designs.

Wiki-based Solar Installation Efficiency Website

What: A business-to-business, crowd-sourced, user-certified information web portal (akin to Wikipedia), focused on installer input for sharing best practices and product experiences, and for providing consolidated feedback to PV module and hardware manufacturers.

Why: The true cost savings of various equipment and systems, and the ability to best leverage efficiencies from these products with smart work practices, are not broadly understood past the salesperson’s claims. This knowledge is held within the industry, slowing the pace of cost reductions. Ripe opportunities exist to:

  • Identify what products save the most in installation costs on various roof types and in specific geographies (climate, regulations, aesthetics, and local training levels all have influencing effects).
  • Signal the opportunity for new products and product features. If crowd-sourced comments iteratively say, “Joe Bob’s [widget] is a pretty good product, but it would be much handier if it came with less packaging/better handles/clips instead of screws/etc.,” that could inform manufacturers and, with enough participation, drive more standardization among module, inverter, and hardware manufacturers.
  • Go beyond hardware and associated labor costs. Shared practices on this site could also be impactful in providing jurisdiction- and utility-specific feedback to help overcome regional permitting, inspection, and interconnection challenges.

National Solar Database

What: Have you ever perused NREL’s OpenPV or the California Solar Initiative databases? At their respective times of inception, they represented pioneering efforts in publishing somewhat transparent solar costs, but the time might be ripe to move to the next generation of such a public database that includes greater project resolution.

Why: Better project data transparency can help reduce costs in many areas, including:

  • Cost increases attributable to jurisdictional requirements would be clearly enunciated, able to be determined by analyzing data such as date energized, module type, installer, project address, electrical configuration, racking system, and price.
  • Detailed, open data could kick start an installer race to the top. Smart installers would quickly try to determine what clusters of low-priced system or system elements can be implemented in their local markets.

Solar-Ready Standards Campaign

What: There’s lots of talk about “solar ready” new buildings, but there’s no commonality as to what such a standard means from one jurisdiction or market to the next. Perhaps we could learn a little from the LEED certification process (or maybe integrate with it), and make these designations certifiable, and possibly also tiered.

Why: As we’ve seen from LEED and other top green building standards, getting certified is a big deal to many builders and investors. Such a standard certification platform could lead to multiple outcomes:

  • New architectural designs and building practices: Perhaps the highest tiers of “Solar Ready” certification could engender this evolution in real estate.
  • Guidance to regulators: In Colorado, House Bill 09-1149 was a big step toward creating a policy framework around “solar ready,” but doesn’t require any physical changes to a building (providing solar installer info qualifies). However, if future regulators had clear guidance on what constitutes “solar ready,” they could provide new, smarter policies around it, such as streamlined (or better yet, no or audit-only) solar permitting.
  • Clear signal to home buyers: A robust “solar ready” standard would tell environmentally inclined homebuyers what they’re getting, and for those of us driven more by the pocketbook, that a future solar install would likely be cheaper.

What’s Next?

RMI is leading the participants from the Chicago event, as well as others, in an ongoing action group to help launch one or more of these solutions. If you’re interested in these solutions, and/or would like to be part of this action group, please visit our action group webpage or contact

Image courtesy of