Fund the Sun: Can U.S. Tax Dollars Cheapen Solar Power?

Feb 7, 2011· 1 MIN READ
Salvatore Cardoni holds a political science degree from the George Washington University. He's written about all things environment since 2007.
Energy efficient lighting glows from the solar-powered Virginia Tech house during the 2009 U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathalon on the National Mall. (Photo: Ho New/Reuters)

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy stood behind a lectern at Rice University and challenged his fellow Americans—by the end of the decade, the United States would put a man on the moon. The press dubbed the challenge JFK’s “moon shot.”

Nearly 50 years later, the U.S. is prepping what Energy Secretary Steven Chu calls its “sun shot.”

The Department of Energy plans to spend $27 million to reduce the costs of solar power by 75 percent in a bid to make the renewable power source as cheap as fossil fuels by the end of the decade.

The plan aims to lower the price of solar energy to $1.00 per watt, or 6 cents per kilowatt hour.

"That would make solar energy cost-competitive with other forms of energy without subsidies of any kind," said Chu, according to Reuters.

The current kilowatt hour cost with photovoltaic solar panels—which convert sunlight directly into electricity—is 15 cents, and that’s with a 7-cent federal grant.

U.S. solar companies have long complained that Chinese companies grabbed the reigns of the world solar market because of massive Chinese government subsidies.

Only 1 percent of the total U.S. electricity output is solar, despite two head-scratching facts—one, solar energy is free; and two, enough sunlight hits the Earth in 40 minutes (that’s an episode of Mad Men, minus commercials) to power us for an entire year.

Since 2001, the DOE has invested more than $1 billion in solar energy research and development, which, with help from the private sector, has lowered the cost of solar 60 percent since 1995.