Biocomplexity Institute researchers and collaborators at the Sandia National Laboratory, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), and Arizona State University have won their place in the sun with a newly funded project from the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative.

The nearly $1.25 million project is part of the SunShot SEEDS II program and seeks to understand social and behavioral factors that influence the adoption of solar power in rural areas. Using diffusion models that integrate a variety of complex data, the project will allow solar providers to understand how to market effectively in rural areas. The project will focus primarily on Virginia, but the agent-based models and their results will guide policy in other rural communities in the U.S.

“We are experiencing a paradigmatic shift in the way people consume energy here in the U.S.,” said principal investigator Achla Marathe of the Biocomplexity Institute. Marathe holds a joint appointment in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “We must understand the factors at play in adopting solar technology to ensure that the full benefits of this technology are realized.”

The models will use synthetic populations to study behavioral and social reasons for adopting solar energy.

“Synthetic populations are an ideal platform for studying factors, such as the impact of peer influence on solar adoption, because they organize information in a person-centric frame of reference,” said research Assistant Professor Samarth Swarup of the Biocomplexity Institute. “Multiple kinds of relationships can be modeled, including family members, co-workers, neighbors, and classmates. As multiple studies have shown, different types of relationships have different kinds and levels of influence.”

The award to Virginia Tech will directly contribute to the soft (nonhardware)
costs reduction, which constitute over 50 percent of the total costs in residential and commercial installations. By working with NRECA, which represents over 900 electric cooperatives across the U.S. that collectively own and operate more than 42 percent of the nation’s distribution lines, the project outcomes will have a tremendous market impact.

“The SunShot Initiative takes a holistic approach to cost reduction by addressing both hardware and non-hardware (also called 'soft') costs,” said Ranga Pitchumani, the George R. Goodson Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, who also served as a chief scientist for the SunShot Initiative from its inception in 2011 until 2015. Pitchumani is head of the Advanced Materials and Technologies Laboratory, located at Virginia Tech Research Center in Arlington, Virginia.

Other team members from Virginia Tech include Associate Professor Anil Kumar Vullikanti, Professor Madhav Marathe of the Biocomplexity Institute and the Department of Computer Science, and University Distinguished Professor Emeritus Arun Phadke of the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.


About the SunShot Initiative

The U.S Department of Energy SunShot Initiative is a collaborative national effort that aggressively drives innovation to make solar energy fully cost-competitive with traditional energy sources before the end of the decade. Through SunShot, the Energy Department supports efforts by private companies, universities, and national laboratories to drive down the cost of solar electricity to $.0.05 per kilowatt-hour. Learn more at

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