In my previous post about plug-and-play solar panels, I discussed the realities of this technology in terms of current product offerings. The US Department of Energy just released a request for information from parties interested in developing plug-an-play technology.
The US government is about to spend up to $30M of taxpayer money to partially fund development to make this technology viable under the “SunShot Initiative.” The idea is to make solar electricity economically viable without incentives and make installation as easy as plugging in a TV. In other words, they want to put solar electric contractors out of business.
That last comment was a bit facetious, but it would have that effect. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on what side of the fence you are standing, I don’t see it happening. Solar electricity is no less dangerous than electricity from the utility company. In fact, it’s more dangerous to handle in some ways. The concept of an appliance that simply plugs in is very nice in theory, but in practice is much more complicated.
When household generator backup became more popular in Florida over the last few decades, there were many fires and deaths attributed to people trying to connect the generator output to their home using an electrical outlet. Similarly, connecting a generator to your circuit breaker panel is extremely dangerous without a proper transfer switch to protect both the household wiring and utility line workers that are repairing systems during an outage. The difficulties with the plug-and-play solar panel concept are similar in many ways, with the added complexity of physical mounting of panels on a roof or ground rack.
In any case, a licensed electrical contractor is going to be required to make a home ready for any future plug-and-play technology that is developed. The physics involved with a standard electrical outlet will not allow safe operation of parallel sources of power on existing wiring systems. It’s like trying to fit four lanes of traffic on a two lane highway. It’s not going to work – at least not safely!
The SunShot Initiative seeks to remove some of these barriers through new product design, standardized connectors, utility and building department cooperation, and building/electric code changes. Regardless of what innovations come out of this project, don’t expect solar panels to be available at your local retailer that you can take home and plug in without some sort of major upgrade to your existing electrical distribution system.
Hopefully there will be significant cost reducing technologies that come out of this initiative. We very well may be able to reach solar cost parity with the utility in the next decade, with or without this project, and without turning every homeowner into a solar installer.
The full text of the RFI can be found here: