SunShot seed corn: DOE sows projects from cheaper BIPV shingles to Shockley-Queisser limit busters

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Tom Cheyney
Tom Cheyney
Tom Cheyney, former senior editor of PV-Tech and Photovoltaics International, is now chief curator of SolarCurator.com and director of Impress Labs’ solar practice.

Still smarting from the wounds of loan guarantee recipient Solyndra’s shutdown and imminent Chapter 11 filing, the US Department of Energy kept its eyes on the SunShot Initiative prize last week, announcing more than $145 million in awards to be spread across 69 projects run by companies, national and private labs, and universities. The efforts encompass a half-dozen categories, including big R, little d and little r, big D accelerants on the cell, module, and inverter technology, balance of system cost reduction (actually, cost reduction is a recurring theme among all categories), grid integration schemes, building integrated PV, and a chunk of change for IT-laden moves to cut nonhardware costs down significantly. Here’s a closer look at some of the players, numbers, and threads that emerge from the latest DOE innovation seed-corn distribution.

The biggest single awards came in the “Extreme Balance of Systems Hardware Cost Reductions” category and went to the collaboration between Owens Corning and Solexel ($12.967 million) and a group led by Dow Solar ($12.8 million), both of which will focus on BIPV developments. Another BIPV winner in the BOS hardware area is Carlisle Construction Materials, which picks up nearly $4.56 million—the sixth largest award overall--to work on low-cost, high-efficiency PV cells to put on roofing membranes.  All in, more than 20% of the total awards went to this trio of building-integrated solar projects.

Dow will be working with at least 11 other partners on the $22.4 million program (with DOE’s grant covering more than half the total), including single-crystal III-V cell developer Alta Devices, the Nationa1 Renewable Energy Labs, Purdue University, UL, Emerson, and the National Roofing Contractors Association, to find new, robust materials and forward-thinking designs for next-generation, high-efficiency rooftop solar shingles. Dow already has experience in this area, with its CIGS-enabled Powerhouse PV shingles set to come to market later this year.

The Owens/Solexel joint effort will combine the big company’s expertise in roofing and glass materials with the early stagers ultrathin crystalline silicon technology, also with an eye toward the development of solar shingles.   

The organization garnering the largest combined amount of awards should come as no surprise: NREL. Not counting their piece of the Dow Solar monies, the national lab was tapped for more than $14.2 million spread over seven projects in the “Foundational Program to Advance Cell Efficiency” and “Transformational PV Science and Technology: Next Generation Photovoltaics II” categories (the two areas where 41 of the 69 winning projects reside).

The largest of those—$6.24 million—will go toward research on reducing cost barriers on high-efficiency CIGS PV cells, with focus areas including the benchmarking of the as-yet unannounced project partners’ devices, addressing the buffer and transparent conducting oxide layers, and broadening the approach to processing CIGS cells. The Golden, CO lab also will have a sizeable amount—$3.5 million—to investigate concentrating PV cells based on high-efficiency materials, with an aim of approaching the cells’ photovoltage limit.

In one gallant effort, NREL researchers will use one of the lab’s four $750,000 next-gen PV category awards to address a formidable long-term challenge: exploring ways to break the heretofore impenetrable Shockley-Queisser limit, the fundamental paradigm bugaboo that stands in the way of increased solar cell efficiency in amorphous silicon and organic-based PV materials.

Some 26 universities will benefit from this round of SunShot largesse. The University of Hawaii received the largest single award for an institute of higher learning—$6.1 million— in the “Solar Energy Grid Integration Systems: Advanced Concepts” topic area, which it will use to develop and demonstrate utility-controlled, smart grid-enabled PV inverters at two utilities—one on Maui and the other on the mainland, with Oklahoma Gas and Electric.

The University of Delaware—home of the Institute of Energy Conversion—picked up five project awards worth more than $7.9 million out of the over $54 million given to university programs. Four of the five will benefit CIGS-related R&D, but the largest single amount—$3.3 million—will try and advance high-efficiency, silicon-based PV cells using thin-silicon wafers produced via high-speed laser processing, with an eye toward chipping away at costs via increased throughput.

The application of laser processing in advanced thin crystalline-silicon cell production is also the focus of the fifth-largest single award—more than $4.6 million—going to a somewhat surprising participant: SolarWorld Industries America.

In addition to the Hillsboro, OR-based unit of the German manufacturer, a handful of solar-specific (or at least heavily invested in solar) companies show up among the winners, including inverter insurgents Satcon and Advanced Energy, thin-c-Si development stager, Astrowatt, CPV leader Amonix, BOS aces Zep Solar, and microinverter/AC module upstart SolarBridge.

When the funding awards are broken down by cell technology food groups (mostly foundational with a few transformational), thin crystalline-silicon narrowly beats out CIGS, $13.9 million and change for c-Si to $13.4 million plus for its II-VI thin-film cousin. Cadmium telluride-centered projects trail the top two, benefiting from more than $8.1 million.

A recurring theme in the transformational category is the exploration of abundant earth materials, with at least eight projects looking to make reasonably efficient thin-film cells out of elements such as tin-sulfide, copper-oxide, zinc, magnesium, tin, and iron-pyrite. (Gotta love the last one—Fool’s Gold solar cells).

In the grid integration systems area, souped-up smart inverters and microinverters/AC modules are a predominant flavor, while it’s all about “soft costs” among the seven winners’ projects in the “Reducing Market Barriers and Nonhardware Balance of Systems Costs” category, where ways to streamline regulations, improve standards, speed up permitting, develop databases and open-source project planning and other info platforms will be the focus of the $13.6 million disbursed.   

Of the $5.8 million awarded to four companies in the SunShot incubator program (the current incarnation of the NREL/DOE incubation awards efforts), an intriguing project from Tigo Energy will receive the lion’s share—more than $3 million—to move a novel, low-cost, DC, arc-fault detector technology to pilot production, which will make PV arrays safer, help lessen ongoing operations and maintenance costs for system owners, and then comply with the applicable codes and standards for new and retrofit applications in residential, commercial, and utility-scale systems.

A couple of technologies stand out for their absence from the list of recent SunShot project awardees. Apart from a couple of small awards, concentrator solar power projects are not to be found, while in the more near-term results-oriented foundational cell technology category, not one organic or dye-sensitized project is among the winners (although a handful of organics or hybrid organics efforts can be found in the transformational/next-gen category).

Another factor to consider was alluded to above in the mention of the Dow BIPV project: the DOE monies are only part of the funding story. For some of the projects, the SunShot awards amount to about 80% of the total value, while in others the percentage is even less. Although one can’t say that for every Energy dollar invested, another private or other public sector dollar is invested in kind, the total investment represented will certainly be tens of millions of dollars larger than the simple award sums.

Since SunShot kicked off earlier this year, DOE has announced close to $300 million in funding awards through the program, with the first big $100 million-plus piece going to the PV Manufacturing Initiative winners—the Bay Area PV Consortium, SVTC Solar, and the US Photovoltaics Manufacturing Consortium led by Sematech and Albany Nanotech. Earlier this month, DOE announced another $50 million manufacturing-oriented funding opportunity called Sunpath (short for “Scaling Up Nascent PV at Home”), which closes in October, with the winners announced in early 2012.

Although more details on various newly funded SunShot projects should start to roll out in the coming months, the program will take a back seat at DOE over the next few weeks, as the last batch of finalized loan guarantee commitments will likely be announced before the end of September, this time bearing the added weight of controversy resulting from the slippery slope of the Solyndra saga.  


  

 

 

 

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