DOE Spending Millions to Make Solar Energy More Affordable

By Susan Jones | December 2, 2011 | 11:33 AM EST

President Barack Obama is given a tour of Solyndra, a solar energy company, on May 26, 2010. (AP Photo/Paul Chinn, Pool, File)

( - Undeterred by the Solyndra scandal, the U.S. Energy Department is spending millions more to bring solar energy to your rooftop.

On Friday, Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced $12 million in funding for 22 regional teams taking part in the administration's "Rooftop Solar Challenge."

"Through this competition, the Energy Department is helping to unleash America's solar potential by investing in projects that will make it faster, easier, and cheaper to finance and deploy solar power in communities across the country," said Chu.

"These awards will reduce the cost homeowners and businesses pay to install solar energy systems, while at the same time saving money and time for local governments faced with tight budgets."

The Energy Department describes its Rooftop Solar Challenge as a collaborative national effort to make solar cost-competitive with other forms of energy by the end of the decade.

It believes that reducing the installed cost of solar energy systems by about 75 percent will drive widespread, large-scale adoption of solar energy -- "fortifying U.S. leadership in the global clean energy race while spurring new industries and job creation across the nation."

Currently, non-hardware costs -- such as permitting, installation, design and maintenance -- account for up to 40 percent of the total cost of installed rooftop solar systems, the Energy Department said. And the permitting, zoning and land-use requirements vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. 

Using the Education Department's "race to the top" model, the Rooftop Solar Challenge directs regional teams to cut through the red tape and technological issues that discourage many homeowners and small businesses from installing solar systems. Specifically, the teams will come up with step-by-step recommendations to standardize the permitting processes, update planning and zoning codes, improve standards for connecting solar power to the electric grid and increase access to financing.

The 22 teams bring together city, county, and state officials, regulatory bodies, private industry, universities, and local utilities "to clear a path for rapid expansion of solar energy and serve as models for other communities across the country," the Energy Department said.

The challenge is part of the department's larger effort to make solar energy more accessible and affordable, increase domestic solar deployment, and position the United States as a leader in the global solar market.

The Obama administration has come under fire in its zeal to expand the domestic solar energy.

Republicans accuse the administration of putting politics ahead of taxpayers in approving a $535-million loan guarantee to Solyndra, a politically connected solar-panel maker, despite warnings about its financial condition from career employees in Energy Department and the Office of Management and Budget.

In a May 2010 visit to California, President Obama went to Solyndra to tout his clean-energy agenda.

The company declared bankruptcy in August 2011, and it was subsequently raided by the FBI.

At a Nov. 17 hearing on Capitol Hill, Energy Secretary Chu said he made the final decision on the Solyndra loan guarantee and he denied that political considerations entered into his decision.