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Why Google is Making a Big Deal Over a Little Solar Device

Virginia Mayo/AP File Photo

President Barack Obama on Friday announced an initiative to boost adoption of renewable energy, including commitments from big box retailers like Wal-Mart to double the number of stores with solar installations.

Buried in the 11-page press release issued by the White House was Google’s statement that it would offer a $1 million prize for the development of a cheap and small solar inverter.

A what?

Solar inverters convert the electricity generated by photovoltaic panels from direct current to alternating current so it can be used by your iPhone, refrigerator, electric car motor and just about every device powered by electrons.

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

“Roughly 80 percent of all electricity will flow through inverters and other power electronic systems by 2030, making them critically important for future electricity infrastructure and use,” Google said in a statement announcing The Little Box Challenge. “We want to shrink inverters down significantly, which will dramatically reduce costs for these systems while making them more efficient. This is no mean feat, and there will be obstacles to overcome. But the winner of this prize has the potential to make a significant impact on the future of electricity.”

Compared to the more than $1 billion Google has spent on investing in wind farms, solar power plants and other renewable energy projects, the $1 million Little Box Challenge is small change—Larry Page probably has more than that rattling around in the center console of his Prius.

But if it spurs innovation so that inverters shrink in size and cost, solar could be deployed to more places, especially to remote regions of the world without access to power grids or that rely on expensive and polluting diesel generators. Tiny inverters would also promote the spread of rooftop solar in the United States—and to places other than your rooftop.

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

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