A New Day Dawns for Solar

March 16, 2007 at 5:57 pm
Contributed by: Chris


Here’s my latest for Energy and Capital, about the recent awards of $168 million in R&D money from the Department of Energy to various solar companies.

A New Day Dawns for Solar

By Chris Nelder

Friday, March 16th, 2007

Normally, I hate Daylight Saving Time. The compulsion to get up an hour earlier rankles . . . it seems so arbitrary. And moving it up several weeks this year, in order to save some energy, got only scornful derision from me when the Energy Policy Act of 2005 was passed, because it seemed like such a cop-out on the hard work of developing a truly sustainable and sensible energy policy.

And perhaps it still is. But, speaking as a guy who is most definitely not a “morning person,” I have been welcoming the wakeup hour since the switch, watching out the window from my bed as the night gives way to the golden light of dawn stealing over the opposite ridge.

The light calls like a claxon, heralding a glorious new day.

Because in the solar world, it truly is a glorious new day. Finally, we’re getting this country on the right track.

I’ll admit, when it was announced back in February I took a skeptical view of the President’s Advanced Energy Initiative, of which the Solar America Initiative (SAI) is a part. But now it looks like the White House has taken heed of the CFR’s call to invest heavily, and broadly, in the R&D side of solar.

Last week, Energy (DOE) Secretary Samuel W. Bodman announced the selection of 13 joint R&D projects with various partners in the solar industry, for a total commitment of $168 million through 2009.

The teams will be led by industry partners, who will foot more than half the bill, so the total funding will be more like $357 million over the next three years.

That ain’t chump change!

The partnerships involve more than 50 companies, including all of the big-name players, plus 14 universities, three non-profit organizations, and two national laboratories . . . a regular solar rodeo.

The goal is to achieve cost parity with grid electricity by 2015, and to build new “zero energy” homes (homes that produce all of their own power). The program aims to accomplish this by increasing the U.S. manufacturing capacity of solar equipment more than tenfold in the next three years–a breathtaking rate of buildout–which should drive the cost per kilowatt-hour (kWh) down from about 23 cents to between five and ten cents, about the cost of grid power today.

Here is a brief summary of the awards (all of the projects get a firm first-year partial investment, with the remaining amounts “available over three years if the team meets its goals.”):

  • $14.8 million to a project led by Amonix to develop “a low-cost, high-concentration PV system for utility markets.” Translation: systems that use devices like reflective dishes to concentrate solar power on specialized solar cells that can take the heat of concentration and harvest more of the light spectra with cells of over 40% efficiency. Amonix design has already been proven for utility usage in the field.
  • $13.3 million to a project led by Boeing to develop a “high-efficiency concentrating photovoltaic power system.” Translation: another concentrating solar power system, only using “advanced high concentration non-imaging optics” and high efficiency (30% or higher) cells, not necessarily for the utility market.
  • $19.1 million to a project led by BP Solar to develop a “low-cost approach to grid parity using crystalline silicon.” Translation: figure out how to make today’s traditional,
    standard solar cells thinner and more productive.
  • $9.4 million to a project led by Dow Chemical for “PV-integrated residential and commercial building solutions.” Translation: work on the building-integrated PV (“BIPV”) market segment, applying Dow’s expertise in adhesives and manufacturing technology to drive down the cost of photovoltaic roofing materials.
  • $18.6 million to a project led by General Electric to develop “a value chain partnership to accelerate U.S. PV growth.” Translation: figure out how to put solar into any kind of building.
  • $2.3 million to a project led by Greenray for “development of an AC module system.” This is one of my personal favorites, for it’s an idea I toyed with once upon a time myself, as I pondered the problems of wiring up today’s standard solar equipment: why not stick the inverter right into the PV module? Do that, and you might be able to arrive at a
    plug-n-play system that could be installed by homeowners, not electricians!
  • $3.6 million to a project led by Konarka for “Building-integrated organic photovoltaics.” This is very exciting, cutting-edge stuff, using organic dyes that convert sunlight to electricity, and it has the potential to make solar ridiculously cheap.
  • $20 million to a project led by Miasole, which will “develop high-volume manufacturing technologies and PV component technologies.” This project focuses on roll-to-roll, continuous manufacturing processes for thin-film PV, as well as integrating electronics into the module and making modules easier to install.
  • $20 million to a project led by Nanosolar for “low-cost, scaleable PV systems for commercial rooftops.” Nanosolar, of course, is the company that frustrates the hell out of us stock market investors, because it’s a private company that we’re just dying to have a
    piece of. Their printing-press approach to solar offers the tantalizing possibility of solar power at a tiny fraction of today’s cost. This project will focus on applying their solar product to large, flat commercial building rooftops. (But one day, I hope to see Nanosolar’s material wrapping entire sides of buildings, and I have personally begged them to focus on that segment.)
  • $6 million to a project led by Powerlight for a “PV cell-independent effort to improve automated manufacturing systems.” Being one of the largest solar integrators/installers in the country, with an impressive list of very large solar projects under its belt, Powerlight is a natural to lead this effort, which will focus on ways to speed up the system design process and make it easier to install solar systems.
  • $4 million for a project led by Practical Instruments for “low-profile high-concentration CPV systems for rooftop
    applications.” This project will explore the possibility of using high-concentration optics and high efficiency cells in a device that doesn’t stand some six feet tall on the roof, as most concentrating solar power systems do.
  • $17.9 million for a project led by SunPower for “grid-competitive residential solar power generating systems.” Translation: they will look for solutions to some of the standard problems in manufacturing traditional solar modules–such as how to make silicon ingots and solar cells more cheaply–and they will explore new designs for solar cells and modules.
  • $19.3 million for a project led by Ovonics for “low-cost thin-film building-integrated PV systems.” Ovonics’ innovative approach to BIPV will be enhanced by increasing efficiency, fabricating cells more quickly, and reducing the cost of other system components.

This kind of investment is exactly what the solar industry has needed for so long, and I expect great results from it.

With it, the program just might make its goal and bring solar power even with grid power in a mere eight years.

It’s very, very exciting. I can’t wait to see what innovations come from it!

Until then . . .


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