The Department of Energy is soldiering on with a new $145 million round of SunShot Initiative funding for high efficiency, low cost solar energy technologies, despite the recent bankruptcy of one of its biggest past awardees, Solyndra. The money will go to sixty-nine projects in twenty-four states. The investment of $145 million is a drop in the bucket compared to what the global competition is doing in terms of public financing for solar development, but it’s still quite an achievement considering that the majority party in Congress has been busily cutting clean energy funds out of DOE’s budget.
$145 Million for New Solar Energy Technology
The SunShot Initiative is designed to bring the cost of solar energy down to parity with fossil fuels – or cheaper – within a few years. The program takes a broad approach to costs, so along with supporting new high-efficiency photovoltaic technology it is also funding projects that lower the cost of manufacturing and installing solar panels. To this end, the new round of funding includes projects that support the adoption of streamlined administrative processes including building codes and zoning laws, as well as projects that shorten the amount of time it normally takes to get new technologies out of the prototype stage and into production.
Cheap Solar Power, Here and Now
Partly because SunShot is focused on near-term gains, a big chunk of the funding is going into an effort to bring down the cost of “balance of system” hardware. Balance of system hardware refers to everything but the solar cells — inverters that convert DC power generated from the solar cells into usable AC power, racks to hold the solar cells, and other equipment that can add up to 40 percent of the cost of a solar installation. Success in this area will have a significant impact on the cost of installed solar energy, even if new advances in low cost solar cell efficiency are several more years away.
High Efficiency Solar Cells, from Lab to Production
Another big chunk of funding will go to overcome cost and efficiency barriers that are keeping promising prototypes for new solar cell technology locked away in the laboratory (new technology that performs well in the lab prototype phase tends to lose a lot of efficiency when translated into a production model). Four other categories of awards are going to smart grid development, next-generation photovoltaic technology, the aforementioned administrative streamlining, and the “SunShot Incubator” to leverage private investment. Ironically, the Incubator is an expanded version of a program that began under the Bush administration. DOE credits it with generating $1.3 billion in private investment from only $60 million in public funding for solar projects.
Department of Energy Gets the Last Laugh on Clean Energy
DOE’s funding is under a cloud but the Department of Defense has stepped into the breach with a slew of solar power projects and other clean energy projects for military facilities as well as energy, waste and water conservation projects. The list is endless, from rainwater harvesting to solar-enabled smart microgrids, landfill gas, and geothermal. Regardless of what the majority party in Congress does to block public investment in domestic energy research, it looks like DOE’s clean energy efforts are already starting to pay off.
Image: Department of Energy seal via DonkeyHotey on flickr.com.
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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+.