The U.S. Department of Energy wants to see its SunShot Initiative succeed. And what clean energy enthusiast wouldn’t? Founded in February of 2011, the SunShot Initiative aims to make solar power cost-competitive with fossil fuels—down to $1 per watt for large projects—by 2020. The program’s funding supports solar research and manufacturing efforts to make solar more affordable and more practical for people across America.
On Tuesday, DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz announced the department will award nearly $60 million to support solar energy research and development projects across the nation. The money will be divided between various sectors of the solar industry to help achieve specific goals: increase solar efficiency and reliability ($23 million), support solar jobs and education ($16 million), reduce the soft costs of going solar while improving performance ($12 million), and help utilities integrate renewables into the power grid ($8 million).
“Responsible development of all of America’s rich energy resources is an important part of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan and will help ensure America’s continued leadership in clean energy innovation,” Moniz said in a statement.
While number of companies and organizations received federal funding from the DOE, here is an example of a project from each goal category:
- Increasing Efficiency: The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) received $4.5 million to design new cadmium-telluride thin film cells that are able to convert 24 percent of the sun’s rays to electricity (using cells developed by First Solar).
- Reducing Costs: Sunrun was awarded $1.6 million to develop software that simplifies the solar installation process--from automating the design and securing permits to physically constructing a solar system.
- Supporting Education and Job Opportunities: Two universities—Delaware State University and the University of Texas at San Antonio—received $1 million to fund research projects and educational opportunities for minority students.
- Grid Integration: The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association was awarded $3.6 million to standardize designs for solar energy generation projects, and develop efficient financing and construction methods for 15 co-ops across 16 states.
Transitioning from Research to Commercialization
The SunShot Initiative has received praise and criticism alike from industry experts—with much of the discussion focused on technology funding. As Steve Leone, editor of RenewableEnergyWorld explains, the program aims to garner national awareness about solar power by blending innovative technology with U.S. manufacturing and buying power. “The DOE’s SunShot Initiative … is looking at more than just the crystalline silicon panels that are currently dominating the industry,” Leone writes. “What it’s seeking are those high-risk, high-reward technologies and models that challenge conventional wisdom and redefine the possibilities of the American solar market.”
The program’s future financing of innovative technologies also raises a few eyebrows. Jack Ahearne of CSP Today acknowledges that the DOE’s program makes continual progress, but voices concern about transitioning from laboratory research to full commercialization. “Although the SunShot Initiative has taken significant steps to providing the necessary funds to drive cost and efficiency breakthroughs, the industry could face a challenge to find the adequate financing needed to take promising technologies from laboratory-scale prototypes to implementing the technology in the market on a larger scale,” Ahearne says.
Lux Research analyst Fatima Toor believes one way to solve this dilemma is to focus on advancing current silicon PV technologies, so that SunShot’s 2020 goal relieves pressure from manufacturers who may not have the ability to commercialize their solar cells by the program’s deadline.
Regardless of the obstacles, recipients of the SunShot Initiative’s funding—like Silicon Solar Solutions—are enthusiastic about breakthroughs in solar cell efficiencies. Silicon Solar received $500,000 to demonstrate how a new post-manufacturing hydrogen treatment that improves efficiency while reducing silver gridlines (called Picasolar technology) can be applied to commercial solar cells.
“It is exciting to think that an Arkansas-developed technology could be what makes solar cheaper than traditional energy sources in Arkansas and around the globe," says Silicon Solar president Douglas Hutchings.