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SunShot program earmarks $170M for PV projects

12 Apr 2011

Latest solar electricity initiative follows up $112.5 million award and Sematech collaboration with a $170 million funding program.

The US Department of Energy (DOE) is to make nearly $170 million available over the next three years to support advances in photovoltaic technologies that promise to help reduce the cost of solar electricity.

The funding is being released under the DOE’s much-hyped “SunShot Initiative”, whose key aim is to reduce the total cost of installed solar energy systems to $1 per watt by 2020 – approximately a 75% reduction on the cost of today’s PV systems.

In its latest funding announcement, the DOE is soliciting for projects in four key areas: improving solar cell efficiency and performance; the development of new “balance of system” technologies; advances in grid integration; and early-stage research into new PV materials and processes.

The announcement swiftly followed the DOE’s separate allocation of $112.5 million over five years to advance PV manufacturing in the US, which was aimed at more commercial-level developments. Under the manufacturing-focused project, the DOE awarded $25 million to the Bay Area PV Consortium for university-focused development, and $25 million to SVTC Technologies of San Jose for industry-focused development.

But by far the largest chunk of funding ($62.5 million) went to the US PV Manufacturing Consortium (PVMC), which will be managed by the semiconductor industry group Sematech and focus on accelerating the commercialization of next-generation copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS) thin-film PV technologies.

Laying the groundwork
Commenting on the latest $170 million project funding announcement, US Energy Secretary Steven Chu said that the investment was intended to lay the groundwork for meeting the SunShot goal of dramatically lowering solar power costs and, ultimately, create a world-leading industry.

“A robust American solar industry will boost our technological leadership and competitiveness,” he said, as well as meeting key goals on energy security, clean energy generation and the creation of skilled manufacturing jobs.

Of greatest relevance to the optics and photonics community are two of the four funding opportunities, namely the Foundational Program to Advance Cell Efficiency (F-PACE) and Transformational PV Science and Technology PV: Next Generation, which are set to receive $39 million and $30 million in DOE funds respectively. Both calls have a letter-of-intent deadline of May 9, and a full application deadline of June 23.

According to the DOE’s forecasts, a “business-as-usual” development of PV technology will see utility-scale solar electricity cost around $2.20 per watt by 2016, down from between $3.40 and $3.80 per watt today. “Pursuing the $1 per watt goal puts the US in a scientific and technical race with other nations to develop, commercialize, and scale-up new PV technologies,” states the F-PACE funding opportunity announcement.

Focus on cost reduction
The current $3.40 figure is dominated by the cost of the PV module, which contributes an estimated $1.70 to the total. The “balance of system” (i.e. non-module costs such as concrete, glass, steel and other materials needed to build a system) costs are put at $1.48, and power electronics (to switch the DC-generated electrical power into grid-friendly AC) at $0.22.

For the SunShot Initiative to hit its $1/W target, those individual costs must be cut to $0.50/W for the module, $0.40 for the balance of system and $0.10 for the power electronics.

For the F-PACE projects, the aim is to focus on commercial or near-commercial PV cell technologies and make them cheaper. Three sub-topics have been identified: the PV sub-cell material; cell-level improvements; and barrier technologies. Examples of the sort of projects that could receive funding include studying the role of copper doping in CdTe cells, or reducing the overall cost of CIGS cells by substituting more gallium in place of less indium – while maintaining the cell’s conversion efficiency. That would reduce per-watt costs because gallium is much cheaper than indium.

Projects funded under the “PV Next Generation” strand are intended to be more transformational and early-stage in nature. Nevertheless, the DOE expects them to be fundamentally focused on a commercial outcome. “Investments in technology that can enable systems that are even lower than $1/W beyond 2020 will further accelerate the deployment of solar energy in the US and open up tremendous new export markets for US firms,” it states in its funding opportunity document.

Examples of the sorts of projects that fall into the “transformational” category include advanced light trapping methods, the use of novel earth-abundant materials (rather than rare elements like tellurium), and biomimetic PV concepts that take inspiration from the natural world.

Around 20 projects are expected to win funding under the F-PACE opportunity, and another 20-30 under the transformational program.

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