Way back in the 1980′s, the U.S. Department of Defense devised a program that saved the American semiconductor industry from the grave, and now that same kind of model has been revived to benefit domestic solar manufacturing. Well, maybe zombie isn’t quite the right word after all. I might be thinking of reanimation. Or cloning, maybe. In any case, in its new incarnation the program will pump up to $112.5 million into new solar technologies, especially at the manufacturing end, as part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot initiative to promote low cost solar energy.
Once Upon a Time, People Loved Government Spending
The semiconductor program from the 1980′s, called SEMATECH, was conceived during the height of the Reagan presidency (yes, that Reagan), after Japan bumped the U.S. out of its global leadership role in semiconductor manufacturers. We taxpayers shelled out $500 milllion over five years to help fourteen domestic companies improve their manufacturing capabilities. It’s not exactly the greatest model for long term domestic manufacturing, because SEMATECH soon detached itself from federal funding and drifted off into global initiatives. However, the basic concept is solid: rather than standing around watching as individual companies flail around for solutions, use public resources to organize a partnership that can compete in the global marketplace.
The SunShot Advanced Manufacturing Partnerships
In its new form, the initiative will focus on creating a network of facilities where photovoltaic manufacturers can come together to work out foundational technology issues. The Obama administration initiated a similar program last year, on a much smaller scale, to provide hydrokinetic companies with a common research and testing platform. The new facilities will provide R&D assistance and a platform for solar demonstration projects, all focused on transitioning new solar technology out of the lab and into low cost commercial production. The network will also include research institutions and federal laboratories.
A Boost for Solar Manufacturing
The new projects include the development of new manufacturing technologies through the Bay Area PV Consortium, which will be managed by Stanford and UC Berkeley. A company called SVTC Technologies will create a development facility for startups and other innovators, which will substantially reduce up-front costs while speeding up the prototype-to-market timeline.
Speaking of SEMATECH…
…SEMATECH itself will manage something called the U.S. Photovoltaic Manufacturing Consortium, which will focus on CIGS thin film solar technology, which has great potential for cost-competitiveness. The project involves universities in New York State and Florida, and includes a component for building the solar workforce and boosting manufacturing yields.
Image: Zombies by Paradigm on flickr.com.
(updated to correct editing error – sorry about that, folks! — T.C.)
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Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.