Bringing the 'moon shot' for energy down to earth

The U.S. Department of Energy has come up with a clever rhetorical way to muster support for solar energy.

Dubbed the SunShot Initiative, its program has the goal of cutting the cost of solar energy by about 75 percent before 2020. The name recalls the “moon shot” speech of President John F. Kennedy in 1962.

Affordable solar energy is the “moon shot of our generation,” said Arun Majumdar, the agency’s acting undersecretary for energy, at a solar-power conference at the Hyatt Regency Philadelphia on Tuesday.

That may be true, but the completion of a new solar array, such as the one dedicated Monday at the Philadelphia Water Department’s Southeast water-treatment plant, can’t compare visually to a rocket launch.

America’s progress in the space race was broadcast on national television in the ’60s and ’70s. Would anyone view YouTube videos of new and better solar technologies when they power up for the first time?

Majumdar would argue that lowering the cost of harnessing the power of the sun - the greatest benign power source we have - is a loftier accomplishment than reaching the moon.

The nation that figures out how to lower the cost of solar energy from the current $3.50 to $4 per watt for installed utility use to $1 will win that race and create a huge business, he said.

“There is a small window of opportunity,” he told the municipal officials gathered for the Energy Department’s fourth annual Solar America Cities meeting. “We need to grab it, or some other country will.”

(Philadelphia was designated one of 25 Solar America Cities by the federal government in 2008, enabling it to receive $200,000 and technical assistance from the federal agency. The goal of the program is to reduce the bottlenecks slowing the adoption of solar energy technologies at the local level.)

Majumdar drew another distinction between the space program and the SunShot Initiative. The former involved a small number of people directly. Solar energy has attracted the attention of far more scientists, businesspeople, and government officials, he said.

If breakthroughs are made by 2017 in making what is currently an expensive technology more affordable, the accomplishment won’t need to be broadcast on the network news or over YouTube. “I hope people would see the results in their backyard,” Majumdar said.

Making tracks

Two area investment firms are expanding their reach into other regions.

LLR Partners, a private-equity firm with $1.4 billion under management, said Tuesday it hired a former Ernst & Young executive, David Siegel, to be its eyes and ears in Washington.

His job is to scout the region from Baltimore to Richmond for investments that make sense for LLR. The firm’s strategy involves finding growing companies with at least $20 million in annual revenues that might make good candidates for recapitalizations or buyouts as well as equity capital to fund expansion. Its deal size ranges from $10 million to $100 million.

This is the first time LLR has established a physical presence outside of Philadelphia, according to LLR partner Mitchell Hollin. Still, with 24 investment professionals working out of its offices in the Cira Centre building near 30th Street Station, LLR remains very much focused on middle-market companies within driving distance from Philadelphia, he said.

SR One, the venture capital arm of GlaxoSmithKline P.L.C. that’s based in Conshohocken, said it had opened an office in San Francisco - its first West Coast beachhead even though it has invested previously in California companies, such as Amgen Inc., Idec Pharmaceuticals Corp., and La Jolla Pharmaceutical Co.

Simeon George is based in the Bay Area for SR One, which says it has made seven investments in the last year. Since 1985, SR One has invested about $650 million in more than 140 companies in the life-sciences sector.

SR One has other offices in London - where GlaxoSmithKline is based - and Boston.