Wind turbines. Solar panels. EV batteries. A lot of clean tech innovation focuses on hardware — physical infrastructure that can change the way we consume energy.
But a recent conversation with Jessika Trancik, a climate solutions researcher at the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society at MIT, highlights the “soft tech” side of the industry — the use of data models and software to accelerate the clean energy transition. Her latest study, released this month, finds that reducing the cost of solar energy will be accelerated by improvements in soft tech, such as streamlining the permitting process for solar farms.
Here are three takeaways from Trancik on clean energy costs and the future of the sector. (The following interview was edited and condensed.)
Tell me about your latest research on energy costs and how it relates to any local concerns.
My colleagues and I published a paper on the mechanisms of solar energy technology improvement. The idea was to understand how we got to where we are right now, with solar energy costs having fallen by more than 99 percent over the last few decades, and where we need to go in the future.
We focused in specifically on that part of the technology that hasn’t been studied as much, which is what we call soft technologies. Those would be the processes for deploying hardware if you want to construct a rooftop solar system, or a utility-scale solar power plant. There are processes [and software] involved in performing that construction and designing the power plant and actually installing the equipment and selling hardware.
We found that the soft technology involved in solar energy really has not changed and hasn’t improved nearly as quickly as the hardware. We estimated that the soft technology only contributed about 10 to 15 percent of the overall cost decline on solar energy costs. That begs the question of how can these processes be improved going forward. These soft costs, in many systems, can be 50 percent or even more of the total cost of solar electricity.
A number of local companies are putting processes in place to try to improve the efficiency of installations and improve the customer service and so forth. That soft costs need to be brought down applies in Massachusetts, and it really applies throughout the country.
What are some of the major roadblocks facing the clean energy sector right now, from solar power to EV adoption?
There’s a lot of opportunity for the clean energy transition to go faster in terms of increasing adoption. The hardware, the EV batteries, the solar panels, they’ve come down so much in cost, and the performance is good. But what could limit both the rate of that transition as well as how equitably it benefits different communities is how efficiently public dollars are used.
The technology and innovation that is stimulated in the private sector is largely going to be determined by soft technology. If you have these individual hardware tools, you still require processes for applying for permits for products, evaluating their competitiveness. Let’s say an apartment building wants to install [EV] chargers. The process of looking into the options for that, comparing the different offers and the different costs, requires time. How efficient that is is going to determine how quickly those sorts of projects can move forward, which in turn determines how willing people are to purchase EVs.
What strengths does Massachusetts have to help foster clean energy?
First of all, there’s strong support at the state level for a variety of policies to support the clean energy transition. That’s certainly going to help augment federal funds for supporting that transition.
The other advantage that Massachusetts has is in the area of technology innovation. We do have a number of companies that are working on stationary, low-cost, long-duration energy storage technologies. We have startups, we have many universities, and a lot of research happening in Massachusetts.
I think that combination of policy support as well as a lot of innovative efforts to develop technology can really be leveraged to enable Massachusetts to be out ahead of this transition and develop innovations not just in hardware but in the combination of hardware and software technology that’s needed. I do think the state is in a good position to do that. I think Massachusetts could be a really good place to do a lot of work.