Steven Chu’s final remarks

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In his final remarks as energy secretary, as reported last week, Steven Chu said that solar electricity would reach grid parity with any other form of energy within a decade and that utility companies would need to develop new business models to adapt to demand for PV.

Renewable technology development has been the hallmark for Chu's tenure as chief of the US Department of Energy (DoE). Since he was appointed in 2008, the Nobel prize-winning physicist established the SunShot Initiative to bring down the installed cost of solar to US$1/watt.

“The whole idea of our SunShot goal was within a decade we will be the world leader not only in the R&D part, but also in the demonstration and deployment and manufacturing part of these components,” he said.

“When we get to utility scale prices, US$0.06/kWh is a levelised cost which will be comparable to the estimate of the Energy Information Agency is projecting for new natural gas power 10 years from today. Without subsidy, solar power will be able to hold its own with any other form of energy.

“It's very exciting because it's important that we recognise that this is now within our grasp. It's getting close enough that you can touch it. This is not something that is going to happen 20-30 years from today, this is something that is going to happen 10 years from today and maybe even sooner.

“We're going further in reaching for the moon. We're reaching for the sun.”

During the DoE webinar alongside Joe Desmond, Senior Vice President of Government Affairs and Communications at BrightSource Energy, and Jeff Allen, Vice President of Business Development at Solar Junction, the outgoing secretary also said he would like to see utilities getting more involved in distributed solar.

“My dream in 5-10 years from now would be that the utility companies could perhaps get into the business,” he said, comparing the lease of solar systems to the old telephone rental agreement with Bell System.

“The phone was a minor cost. I can see a day where the utility company says we're going to sell you electricity but you will allow us to use your rooftop. You say, what's in it for me? We're going to install a battery in your house also so you'd be more immune to blackout, but we're going to use that battery to balance the distribution system so we don't have to overfill our lines anymore. So we'll have a more robust system more immune to blackout.

“What's in it for the utility company? There's a new growth model of an expanded business. We should start thinking of totally different models.”

He also said that utilities would need to get more involved in the monitoring of solar systems as PV penetration increased.

“When solar was one-tenth or 1% of local generation on a grid system, it was a little dimple, a little perturbation,” he said. “Now imagine if it's 10%, 20%, 30% which is going to be very real, what do you do? What the utility company would need is a monitoring of generation on the rooftops, equivalent to smart meters; they will need to know what's happening.”

As part of the SunShot Initiative, the DoE last week announced US$15 million in new funding to spur innovation in manufacturing processes for solar energy systems.

Chu also oversaw the DoE's loans guarantee programme, which enabled projects such as BrightSource's CSP plant to be built. The 392MW Ivanpah project in the Mojave desert was awarded US$1.6 billion, more than half the US$2.2 billion cost of the project. He also established the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), based on the US military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), to develop cutting edge energy technology.

Chu leaves his post at the end of this month and will return to Stanford University. President Barack Obama has nominated MIT nuclear physicist Ernest Moniz to replace him. But some in the renewables industry have expressed concern that Moniz, who supports the development of natural gas, will not continue Chu's enthusiastic promotion of non-fossil fuel sources of energy.

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