Financial prospects for deployment of photovoltaic systems could be brightening.Prices of PV panels from both Asian and domestic manufacturers, for example, have dropped so much recently that many developers of solar power utility projects in California who originally planned to use solar thermal systems are switching to PV, according to a San Jose Mercury News story posted this month.And on December 1, the Department of Energy announced the winners of a competition, called the Rooftop Solar Challenge, intended to reward regional teams for coming up with proposals that will streamline PV-installation permitting and address metering, financing, zoning, grid connection, and other administrative issues – the sources of so-called “soft” costs – and reduce the time involved in getting projects up and running. From a field of 47 applicants, the DOE awarded 22 teams $12 million, in grants of $260,000 to $750,000 (depending on the population of the region served), to implement their proposals and share strategies that prove helpful.A cost per wattThe Rooftop Solar Challenge is part of the DOE’s SunShot Initiative, which enlists the expertise of industry stakeholders in exploring ways to drive down costs for solar installations and to increase adoption of solar technology. One of the most effective ways to drive widespread adoption, the DOE says, will be to reduce installation and administrative costs. The agency’s installation-cost reduction goal is 75%.Soft costs account for as much as 40% of the total cost of installed rooftop systems in the U.S., the DOE says, noting that there are more than 18,000 local jurisdictions with their own permitting requirements and land-use and zoning strictures, and more than 5,000 utilities and all 50 states implementing connection procedures and tariffs for selling energy back to the grid. Permitting and inspection alone can add about 5 cents per watt to the cost of PV, according to a report released in January by solar specialist SunRun.On the technical side of PV, the DOE in September announced $35.8 million in funding for 18 research projects designed to increase PV efficiency. The awardees are investigating barriers to high efficiency performance, solar cell innovation, and ways to reduce materials costs.