How a $1 million Google prize could make solar even cheaper

Google hopes to spur innovation to lower the costs of one of the most expensive parts of a solar system.
Written by Tyler Falk, Contributor
solar panels on national mall

Last week, the President of the United States Barack Obama announced a list of commitments from the public and private sectors to advance solar deployment. Among the initiatives: Walmart is doubling the number of on-site solar project in the U.S., affordable housing units are adding more solar panels, and the White House is bringing back solar panels to its roof.

But over at The Atlantic, Todd Woody points out another important project buried in the list of commitments that could be even more important for solar in the long run.

Google is launching a $1 million competition, called the Little Box Challenge, to develop a better solar inverter.

What's a solar inverter?

It's the component of a photovoltaic system that converts direct current output of solar panels into alternating current that can be fed into the electricity grid and ultimately power your gadgets. So it's an important part of any solar system. The problem is they're large and expensive.

"While the price of solar panels has plunged about 75 percent in recent years, inverters remain big, bulky and expense [sic] and are one of the priciest pieces of a photovoltaic system," Woody explains.

Google has already become a major investor in renewable energy. It has invested over $1 billion in 16 renewable energy projects around the world. So this $1 million investment is small in comparison. Regardless, improving solar inverters could have a major impact on numerous industries.

As Arun Majumdar, Google's vice president of energy, said in a statement: "The innovations inspired by this prize will help make renewable energy more affordable, electric vehicles lighter, and electric motors significantly more efficient."

Google has yet to announce the complete details of the competition.

Photo: Flickr/Dept of Energy Solar Decathlon

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