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R&D Project Aims To Cut Time, Cost of Solar Installations

Solar roof shingles (NREL)

Thin-film solar cells can be fashioned into roof-top tiles or shingles. (National Renewable Energy Laboratory)

A new research and development project led by North Carolina State University in Raleigh seeks to reduce the time and cost of installing rooftop solar energy systems. The five-year, $9 million grant was awarded by the U.S. Department of Energy to a consortium of NC State’s FREEDM Systems Center — an energy engineering research lab — and NC Solar Center, with several other organizations: University of Toledo, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, solar panel manufacturer Isofoton, energy/utility technologies developer ABB, and energy industry consultants Quanta Technology.

The program aims to design solar energy systems, as well as protocols for installation and connection that homeowners and installers can follow with little or no customization. With these practices, solar systems would set up quickly and connect to the power grid easily, while still meeting building and electrical codes.

Engineering professor Alex Huang, the lead researcher on the grant and director of the FREEDM Systems Center, says, “The high cost and hassle associated with installing home solar energy systems is a major barrier to their widespread adoption.” Much of what homeowners spend on solar energy systems today goes for work and materials other than the systems themselves: supplier overhead, inspections, permitting, installation and related costs. The Energy Department estimates these costs add $2.50 per watt, a significant amount of money for solar energy systems that generate several thousand watts of power.

The grant is expected to support the work of researchers at NC State and their colleagues to develop standardized panel mounting systems, communication technologies, electrical wiring designs, automated permitting systems, and related technologies that reduce installation costs. The group plans to involve code- and standard-setting organizations, electric utilities, building and electrical inspectors, and consumers to address concerns of solar energy system installers and the local authorities that set installation rules.

By creating systems based on simple, universal designs — much like USB interfaces on computers — the researchers believe they can drive down installation costs under $1.00 per watt. If that goal is met, the project could save a homeowner putting in a 5,000-watt solar energy system more than $7,500 in installation costs.

“By developing standardized and easy-to-use technologies,” adds Huang, “we can significantly reduce the cost of these systems for homeowners, who would be able to install the systems themselves.”

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