How can solar power become cheaper than coal? Former software developer Steve Nelson has one unique approach: Giving away plans for innovative solar tech in an open source model, so other engineers can quickly and easily improve on the original design. The nonprofit Zenman Energy, founded by Nelson, is bringing the software world’s successful use of open source tech to the world of renewable energy.

Zenman Energy is working to incorporate low-cost features into every part of its design. Rather than using solar photovoltaics, the technology that makes up common solar panels, Zenman is focused on the less expensive solar steam engines. The engine works by heating water with sunlight; when the water boils, the steam is used to power an electric generator. Large solar arrays have used similar technology for decades, but Zenman is designing a new version that dramatically reduces the cost of manufacturing, installation and maintenance.

Mirrors concentrate sunlight to power the technology. One advantage of solar steam engines is that the reflective material is much less expensive than photovoltaics.

After Zenman has produced its first prototypes, it plans to give away its construction plans, videos, pictures, calculations and software for free. In part, the intent is to help spread the technology more quickly, but the organization also hopes others will be able to improve the design. Over the long term, Zenman hopes that this technology will become cheaper than coal.

“When solar energy becomes a good financial investment is when money pours into the solar industry,” Nelson told a blogger for Forbes. “ROI is how we solve the problem of climate change.”

Main image credit: Tom Raftery; secondary image credit: Zenman Energy