SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- Much like the moon shot 50 years ago, the government is turning to the heavens to inspire a generation of scientists and innovators to help America reach its next big challenge.
Only this time, it's the sun, not the moon, that is the object of desire. And instead of space travel, the focus is finding better ways to power the Earth through energy from the sun.
The SunShot Initiative is a challenge laid out by the Department of Energy to decrease the cost of solar energy to $1 per watt, which would in turn help drive the economy, decrease dependence on foreign oil and reduce the amount of climate-changing gases spewing into the atmosphere. It's a lofty goal, but a worthy one, Ramamoorthy Ramesh, the DOE's director of the Solar Energy Technologies Program told scientists and energy experts at the Santa Barbara Summit on Energy Efficiency.
"It's like any experiment," he said. "What we are doing is setting up a hypothesis and then you go back and do the experiment and you see what the result is."
The two-day conference that finished Wednesday is looking at the challenges and goals of transitioning the United States toward a larger renewable energy portfolio while using energy more efficiently. The event was put on by the University of California-Santa Barbara's Institute for Energy Efficiency.
The SunShot Initiative is part of President Barack Obama's drive to make 80 percent of the country's power come from clean energy sources by 2035. A watt now costs between $3 and $4 for large systems, and industry experts say $2.20 per watt is feasible within five years. That is about 10 cents per kilowatt hour, the standard measurement for utility bills.
Bill Brinkman, director of the DOE's Office of Science, said technology isn't the hold-up on increasing the role of solar in the country.
"The problem is we all know how to do it, but it's too expensive," he said. While the price of solar energy has fallen by about 50 percent in recent years, it is still reliant on a series of subsidies to make it affordable to residential and commercial customers.
As the price has fallen, there has been an enormous growth in the number of photovoltaic panels on rooftops around the country. In 2010, there was more than 10 times the amount of energy produced by solar than in 2005, a growth rate that is expected to continue.
"To put it simply, business is booming," said Ryne Raffaelle, a director with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. "The growth rate is truly phenomenal."
But for it to reach its true potential, it needs to be able to compete with gas, coal and oil, Ramesh said.
"We want to get to the point where you don't need subsidies," he said. "It's challenging but it's doable."
Solar is concentrated in places like California now, where the sun is abundant. But if the costs were down to $1 per watt, it would make economical sense everywhere in the country.
The SunShot program tackles four challenges to help drive down the price of solar electricity: promoting technology of the solar cells, better electronics that optimize installations, improving the efficiency of solar manufacturing and reducing the costs of permitting and design.
Technology will take care of the innovation needed to drive part of the cost down, but policy makers need to look at how to reduce costs of permitting and inspections during installation.
Asked if the country has the enthusiasm to get behind solar panels in the same way it did with putting a man on the moon, Ramesh was excited by the possibilities.
"That same sense of patriotism that we used to put a man on the moon is what is needed," he said. "The confluence of creating jobs and getting competitive in the global market and the priority of creating green energy, that should be sexy, no?"
Zeke Barlow is a reporter for the Ventura County Star in California