You are here

Secretary Moniz's Remarks at the 2014 White House Solar Summit

April 17, 2014 - 5:32pm


Well thank you, Ali. Although, I might reconsider after that nuclear waste comment.  And I want to say thank you to John Podesta. Not just for his remarks today, but for the leadership he is bringing to President’s energy and climate agenda. And it’s really great to be reunited with John in terms of working on these clean energy challenges

As the President mentioned in the State of the Union address, every four minutes another American home or business goes solar. And I think many of the people in this room are really important parts of that reality. We thank you for that and it’s an honor to be able to recognize what you have done.

I’ve said many times before, including in my pre-return to government period, that I certainly am very bullish on the future of solar. We can talk about numbers, like nearly 5 gigawatts total of solar technologies installation in 2013, over a third of our total deployment. I’m almost embarrassed to say that my first exposure to solar panels was more than 50 years ago. As a high school student, I went to Bell Labs and saw the nearly complete first Tel-Star communications satellite, a ball covered with solar panels. It was really quite something to see.

But then in my more recent past, as Ali mentioned, at MIT, where I directed the MIT Energy Initiative, in our first four years we had a tremendous growth of the program, showing the commitment of the students and faculty to the energy and climate agenda. And within that time period, we had 104 solar projects.  Clearly the long pull in our energy tent there, so again it’s a very, very major commitment.

Now since those Tel-Star days, obviously, photovoltaic panels and modules have certainly declined in cost; a couple orders of magnitude since the Tel-Star days. As John said, maybe 75% since 2008. And, of course, that cost reduction is part and parcel of the deployment increases that we are seeing so aggressively

Jobs, John mentioned jobs, nearly 150,000.  That increase in jobs in the solar industry in the United States, about 20% since the fall of 2012. And that is very, very substantially above the overall job creation rate. So I think we’re seeing a number of indicators and a number of important impacts.

Today, in my remarks, I will get to the announcement that John announced. But I wanted to emphasize a little bit here, something that, is in some sense, is the innovation chain that leads to the type of deployments that you can do and even accelerate as we continue to drive costs down, for example, that we can do in this area.

So, I want to talk about our role briefly across the entire innovation chain - research, development, demonstration, and deployment of solar. We all know that what one might say, the traditional role of the government, in supporting basic research, is well recognized. But I want to say we are working across the innovation chain, all the way from basic research to deployment, because of something that John also mentioned: the urgency of responding to the greenhouse gas emission challenge. The urgency that was reinforced by the IPCC report, just last weekend. By the reality that if we want to accomplish the climate risk mitigation goals that we feel are so critical, it’s only good business sense to be doing that now before it gets a lot more expensive and a lot more difficult down the road, and that of course is at the basis of the President’s Climate Action Plan.

I just want to make one more comment that in this kind of introduction, it’s a quote that I’ve used many times, from a person, Harish Hande in India, who has been very instrumental, particularly in off grid applications of solar.  In some sense, one might say  a dichotomy between on grid and off,  this was some years ago, when he said that solar energy, at that time , is too expensive for the rich but very affordable for the poor.  And of course the idea is that solar off-grid, scalable can mean so much to those who don’t have electricity. But, we’re reaching the point where it’s going to be affordable for everybody and all applications. and that’s what we’re seeing in this country. And that’s a pretty remarkable development, over just 6 or 7 years, in terms of where we’re going.

But as I said, innovation, at the Department of Energy in many ways our major focus is on this innovation chain. I want to repeat it again and again, the object of that innovation is continued cost reduction in these zero carbon technologies and solar in particular.

So just a few things I’ll say across that spectrum. For example, on the research side, much of it at universities, we support energy frontier research centers, which are re-looking at the grand challenges that are going to permit new materials in the future. It’ll provide many flexible materials, you know, the whole array, maybe organic materials, whatever the solution is, probably at the nano scale.

The idea is that they will again be cost reducers.  It may be, for example, in eliminating the substrates that one needs, the weight that drives a lot of system costs. So we will continue to work that way.

Our laboratories are clearly engaged as well. NREL, our National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, continues to drive the efficiency frontier at the lab scale with private sector implications. But I’ll mention another example of what NREL was a part of some years back. That was working in the early stages of First Solar, in terms of developing the thin film deposition technologies that then drove First Solar from a start- up company to a company that installed a gigawatt last year.

Of course the SunShot Incubator Program, $104 million in government funds, has now leveraged $1.8 billion in investment funds and venture capital equity investments. Again, that’s a pretty good leverage.

One company from that program, Innovalight, used the funding to increase conversion efficiency, from its cells, from 14 to 19%, which made them very attractive to DuPont - which is continuing to develop the technology.

Our ARPA--E program, takes yet different cut, a kind of an entrepreneurial approach to technology development, including a very important component, tech to market work with every awardee.

Again, a whole bunch of technologies here, including supporting new manufacturing technologies, same theme cost reduction. As well as the essential enabling technologies, like power conversion devices and storage, that will make solar even more attractive as we move forward.

One ARPA-E recipient, Primus Power, working with the military - John mentioned the Department of Defense commitments- in this case, developing low cost energy dense storage system that can store enough energy to operate a military base for 72 hours, in the event of an disruption. They are building a microgrid at Miramar. They will use solar power during the day and of course charging up their batteries for the rest of the time.

When it comes to distributed solar, in particular, of course, we all know another issue is the system cost reduction, the soft cost, as such an important part of the challenge. In the United States, there are more than 18,000 local jurisdictions, with their own PV permitting requirements. I know many of you face that in your work. I know that this can be expensive, this can be burdensome. And we now know many of these soft costs are now the dominant costs, in fact, of a system.  So, again, in our SunShot initiative, we are, through our rooftop solar challenge, working to reduce installation costs and try to speed the permitting process for rooftop solar units.

A couple of success stories - and we need to scale this up dramatically. Brower County, Florida, solar energy system permit and a pre-approved set of design plans now a 30 minute affair and not a many, many week affair.  And that means, of course, less cost as well as less frustration, shall we say.

In Chicago, again, solar permits are now down to about 25% less than they were just recently. Again, a day instead of a month. And so we need to keep thinking across the board, as I say, from that early stage innovation all the way to these critical deployment issues.

And, as John indicated, so today, we’re very pleased to say that through the SunShot initiative we’ll be offering $15 million to help communities to develop multi-year solar deployment plans that will enable them to install, again, affordable solar electricity for homes and businesses.

This Solar Market Pathways funding opportunity, aims to help communities expand solar markets, remove red tape, and build public/private partnerships.

As part of this, communities could choose to launch shared solar programs, giving families and businesses opportunities to own, lease, or purchase electricity from a share of a larger solar project. Again, reducing overall costs, same theme and giving more consumers access to solar.

I’ll just mention another initiative that is maybe indirectly relevant here, but very, very important. The President, of course, has emphasized strongly the idea of our building more manufacturing hubs. This is about the enabling technologies for manufacturing in this country, in the future, for solar and for many, many other areas.

For example, in January, I was very honored to join the President in North Carolina, where we launched a manufacturing hub on wide band gap semiconductors, power electronics. Again, multiple applications including in this business.

Finally, in terms of some of the clean energy finance issues that John Podesta alluded to. We are, in the White House, at the Department of Energy, and, across  the government, looking at all, many methods, of advancing clean energy finance.

I’ll just mention one, this is not exactly not at the small scale, one of our programs. The Loan Program is one that we are continuing to move aggressively in the solar business. You know that this has been not without controversy. But, I want to say flat out, this program has been a tremendous success, when looked at as a portfolio. Just over 2% in a default rate, but doing its job as first mover initiatives.

So certainly one of the great stories here, is that in 2009/2010, this country had no utility scale photovoltaic or CSP, plants. And of course, debt financing was not exactly easy to come by.  The program supported the first five 100 megawatt plus PV installations. And subsequently, 10 more are now going forward with purely private financing. That’s the kind of pattern we want where we are helping, getting things started. But, of course, it will take the private sector, ultimately, to manage the scale.

Similarly on CSP, we dedicated the Ivanpah facility, recently in Southern California, pretty impressive. Really, you got to admit, seeing it for more than 300,000 big mirrors, 3 big towers. It looks kind of, you have to admit it, like the towers of Mordor. But to a good purpose. And, again, moving out these first movers, at a large scale, for future deployment, not only in the United States, but potentially around the world.

And, just yesterday we announced, in our Loan Programs Office, that we are now soliciting a new round of proposals for loan guarantees in renewables and energy efficiency. We anticipate the order of $4 billion being issued, probably in this case, with an increased emphasis on co-funding with other investors.

So we continue to, I want to make it clear, we continue to advance this program. And we are advancing this program across the clean energy spectrum, and specifically, as I said, yesterday’s announcement was for renewables and energy efficiency.

Now, I have the pleasure of moving on and acknowledge our champions. I’ll do so after just one last thought. Again it refers to people in this room.  People are, obviously, at least as important as the technology. And again that includes our champions today.  It includes all of the students that we are training for a variety of roles in our clean energy future.

As I said, and I’ll just end by repeating, I at least personally, and I think others in this Administration agree pretty uniformly, are pretty bullish on solar. And we look forward to the continuing contributions that the Champions of Change will make.