To improve solar power and other clean energy technologies, think beyond the hardware.Massachusetts Institute of Technology News

To continue to reduce the cost of solar energy and other clean energy technologies, scientists and engineers need to focus on improving technology features that are not based, at least in part, on hardware, according to MIT researchers. I think there will be. They today explain this discovery and the mechanism behind it: natural energy.

Although the cost of installing solar energy systems has fallen by more than 99 percent since 1980, this new analysis highlights the impact of “soft technology” characteristics such as codified permitting practices, supply chain management techniques, and system design processes required for deployment. is shown. Solar energy plants contributed only 10 to 15 percent of the total cost savings. Improvements in hardware capabilities accounted for a large share.

But as soft technologies increasingly dominate the total cost of solar energy system installations, this trend threatens to slow future cost reductions and impede the global transition to clean energy, the study’s lead author says. Professor Jessica Trancik of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Data Institute said: Systems and Society (IDSS).

Trancik’s co-authors include first author Magdalena M. Klemun; He is a former IDSS graduate student and postdoctoral fellow and currently an assistant professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Goksin Kavlak is a former IDSS graduate student and postdoctoral researcher who is currently an employee of the Brattle Group. James McNerney, former IDSS postdoctoral fellow and current senior research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School.

The research team created a quantitative model to analyze the evolution of costs of solar energy systems that captures the contribution of both hardware and soft technology characteristics.

This framework shows that soft technologies have not improved much over time, and that soft technology features contributed even less to overall cost reductions than previously estimated.

Their findings suggest that to reverse this trend and accelerate cost declines, engineers should consider reducing solar energy systems’ reliance on soft technologies from the outset or improve inefficient installation processes. This shows that you can directly address the problem by doing so.

“To support the transition to clean energy, it is important to truly understand where the efficiencies and inefficiencies are and how to address those inefficiencies. We’re investing money, and soft technology is going to be absolutely essential to making those funds work,” says Trancik.

“But,” adds Kremun, “We haven’t been thinking about the design of software technology as systematically as we have with hardware. That needs to change.”

The hard truth about soft costs

Researchers observe that the so-called “soft costs” of building a solar power plant, the costs of designing and installing the power plant, account for a much larger proportion of the total cost. . In fact, today, soft cost percentages typically range from 35 to 64 percent.

“We wanted to take a closer look at where these soft costs are coming from and why they don’t come down as quickly as hardware costs over time,” says Trancik.

Until now, scientists have been able to determine the cost of solar energy by dividing the total cost into additional components (hardware and non-hardware components) and tracking how these components change over time. We have been modeling change.

“But if you really want to understand where these rates of change are coming from, you have to go one level deeper and look at the capabilities of the technology. Then things diverged in different directions,” says Transic. says.

Researchers developed a quantitative approach to model changes in solar energy costs over time by assigning contributions to individual technology features, including both hardware and soft technology features.

For example, their framework captures the reduction in system installation costs (soft costs) due to standardized practices of certified installers (soft technology features). You can also see how the same soft costs are affected by improvements in the efficiency of photovoltaic modules, which are a function of the hardware technology.

Through this approach, the researchers confirmed that hardware improvements have the greatest impact on reducing the soft costs of solar energy systems. For example, the efficiency of photovoltaic modules doubled between 1980 and 2017, reducing overall system costs by 17%. However, approximately 40% of that overall reduction can be attributed to lower soft costs associated with improved module efficiency.

This framework shows that while hardware technology features tend to improve many cost factors, soft technology features only influence some.

“We can see this structural difference even before we collect data on how the technology has changed over time. That’s why mapping the network of cost dependencies for the technology is important for solar power and “This is a useful first step in identifying triggers for change in other technologies as well,” Kremun said.

static soft technology

Because soft costs can vary widely around the world, the researchers used the model to study several countries. For example, the soft cost of solar energy in Germany is about 50% lower than in the United States.

Analysis shows that the fact that improvements in hardware technology are often shared globally has led to dramatic reductions in costs across locations over the past few decades. Soft technology innovations are typically not shared across borders. Furthermore, the researchers found that countries that performed well in soft technology 20 years ago continue to perform well today, while those that performed poorly have not seen much improvement.

These country-to-country differences can be driven by regulatory and permitting processes, cultural factors, or market dynamics such as interactions between companies, Trancik said.

“But not all of the soft technology variables are things we want to change in the direction of lower costs, such as lower wages. So when interpreting these results, we need to look beyond just lowering the cost of technology. , other considerations also need to be taken into account,” she says.

Their analysis points to two strategies to reduce soft costs. For one thing, scientists can make soft costs more dependent on hardware technology variables and less on soft technology variables, such as creating simpler, standardized equipment that can reduce installation time in the field. You may be able to focus on developing improvements to your hardware.

Alternatively, researchers could directly target soft technology capabilities without changing the hardware, perhaps by creating more efficient workflows for system installation or automated authorization platforms. .

“In practice, engineers often pursue both approaches, but separating the two in a formal model allows them to leverage specific relationships between technology characteristics and costs to target innovation efforts. “It makes it easier to use,” says Kremun.

“When we think about information processing, we often ignore the processes that still occur in very low-tech ways, where people communicate with each other. It’s just as important as what you do,” Trancik said.

In the future, she and her collaborators hope to apply quantitative models to study the soft costs associated with other technologies, such as electric vehicle charging and nuclear fission. They are also interested in better understanding the limits of improvement in soft technology and how they can design better soft technology from the start.

This research was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Solar Energy Technology.

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