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When I first heard the name “Sunshot Initiative,” I immediately thought of some fantastical and ground-breaking mission in outer space.  Maybe it would come from a future where our spacecraft traverse multiple solar systems, “slingshoting” off the gravity of alien suns the way the current versions do with moons and planets.  Or maybe it would require the scenario from that British sci-fi movie Sunshine, where a crew of astronauts is tasked with saving humanity by reigniting a dying sun.  But the program behind the name, if somewhat less Hollywood-esque, is nearly as exciting and much, much closer to home.

The real Sunshot Initiative originated not from mission control but from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).  Launched (no pun intended) in early 2011, the Sunshot Initiative has a simple but game-changing goal:  reduce the cost of electricity generated from solar energy systems enough that non-subsidized solar becomes cost competitive with other energy sources by 2020.

This requires a decrease of roughly 75% in the cost per watt of solar energy systems, down to about a dollar per watt or six cents a kilowatt-hour.  In order to do this, the DOE is pouring millions of dollars of new funding into over 150 solar research projects around the country.    

CBEY is part of a Sunshot coalition, working with Connecticut’s Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority (CEFIA), both of Connecticut’s major utilities, and several other public and private stakeholders.  Our grant comes from a subproject within Sunshot called the Rooftop Solar Challenge, which is aimed specifically at reducing the “soft costs” of rooftop solar photovoltaic systems on residential homes and small commercial establishments. 

“Soft costs” refers to everything other than the cost of the solar hardware itself.  This includes everything from the installation costs and permitting fees to the time and effort needed to get the system running. The soft costs of rooftop solar are also heavily influenced by how the local government and utilities regulate such systems.

To help navigate this challenge, our team at CBEY set out to document and compare these regulatory structures in a cross section of twelve cities across Connecticut.

This fall, we interviewed municipal planning and zoning officers and utility employees about rooftop solar regulations.  My favorite part of these conversations was the window they provided into the character and values of the communities they come from.  Some cities support solar by adopting ordinances that explicitly protect the right to install rooftop systems and streamline the processes for acquiring zoning and building permits.  Others adopt a “less-is-more” approach by avoiding solar-specific laws and treating solar systems like any other accessory structure.  Their logic is that if residents already know the permitting process for a satellite dish or a garage, why make them learn a different (even if shorter) process for a solar panel? 

This spring, we will pull together our results and make some practical recommendations about what types of policies are the most effective at reducing soft costs and increasing the rate of rooftop solar installation.

It turns out that the origins of the Sunshot name are closer to my spaceship musings than I expected.  The name is a play on “moon shot,” a nickname for President Kennedy’s celebrated 1960’s campaign to reboot America’s space program and be the first country to put a man on the moon.  Though the goals of the two programs are very different, their philosophies are the same.  They seek to unite people across the country to work towards an ambitious goal that, if achieved, could radically change our future.  CBEY is working on a small piece of that goal, and I’m proud to be part of the effort.  These days we don’t need to go all the way to the moon; the rooftops are their own frontier.

[Author’s note:  The CBEY Sunshot team is currently in the process of developing and refining our recommendations based on the findings from the interviews.  These will be covered in future posts once they have been finalized.  Questions or comments about the project or this post can be emailed to hilary.staver@yale.edu, and more information about the Sunshot Initiative can be found at http://www1.eere.energy.gov/solar/sunshot/index.html ]
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