It seems like only yesterday that the German solar company SolarWorld was leading the charge to pound China and Taiwan with solar tariffs for allegedly dumping cheap, government-subsidized solar cells on the US market. That action has touched off a slugfest among competing interests in the US solar industry, but apparently the Energy Department has stayed out of the fray. Just last week the agency awarded a nice little $4 million nugget to who else but SolarWorld, representing a generous chunk of a new $53 million solar funding package.
Putting aside the solar tariff WTF factor, the $4 million SolarWorld award was one of ten awards parceled out under the Energy Department’s “SolarMat” initiative for streamlining and cutting down the cost of manufacturing photovoltaic cells in the US, so it looks like cheaper solar cells are coming to the US, tariffs or no tariffs.
A Brief History Of SolarWorld And The US Solar Tariff
So…US taxpayers are shelling out the big bucks for a company that’s not even a US company, right? Not exactly.
Although SolarWorld’s corporate headquarters are in Germany, not too long ago it became the latest in a chain to acquire a prominent US solar company formerly known as Solar Technology International STI).
SolarWorld obligingly provides a complete timeline, but for those of you on the go here’s the short version: STI was created in 1975 with production facilities in California. Just two years later it was acquired by Atlantic Richfield, Siemens, and Royal Dutch Shell in succession, until it finally landed in the hands of the German startup SolarWorld in 2002.
Under the SolarWorld umbrella, in 2008 the company opened its new manufacturing plant in Hillsborough, Oregon, which has already been expanded several times.
Many of SolarWorld’s signature installations over the past few years involve civic properties including schools, utilities, and US government facilities such as the Navy’s Pearl Harbor solar installation.
You can find a rundown on all the projects at the SolarWorld website, which could give you an idea why in 2012 the company began aggressively (to say the least) pressuring the US Department of Commerce to impose tariffs on imported solar cells, specifically from China and Taiwan.
Also motivating the company is the fact that it makes its solar cells from scratch out of raw silicon feedstock, one of the few US companies to do so currently.
Although SolarWorld has received numerous subsidies for its operations in both Germany and the US, that doesn’t seem to have made SolarWorld shy about advocating for solar tariffs. The company apparently got its way this past summer, although since then the Commerce Department has already made some adjustments to the new solar tariffs.
$4 Million For Low Cost Solar Cells
Speaking of manufacturing silicon solar cells from scratch, that is where the new $4 million DOE grant is targeted.
SunShot takes a soup-to-nuts approach that includes cutting edge, high efficiency solar cell R&D along with other somewhat less dramatic factors that play a significant role in the cost of solar power, including streamlining marketing, permitting, administration, and installation processes.
That also includes lowering manufacturing costs, and that’s where the new SolarWorld grant comes in. The company is ponying up $4 million of its own to match DOE’s $4 million, with the aim of shepherding its proprietary NeoGrowth method for growing silicon crystals out of the pilot phase and into commercial production.
Since money is the name of the game, DOE naturally expects that the resulting silicon wafers will compete favorably in the open market, while potentially delivering increased efficiency to silicon solar cells.
According to SolarWorld, the project will combine R&D from the Oregon facility with research based at its German facilities. If all goes well, DOE won’t be disappointed. SolarWorld is aiming for a power density of more than 300 watts-peak, once the module goes into full production.
For the record, among the other nine awardees under this round of SolarMat funding were California’s Silevo, to fine tune a low cost vapor-deposition manufacturing process for photovoltaic modules. Silevo was recently acquired by SolarCity, that’s why we’re singling them out for attention.
Two other awardees of note are Crystal Solar Inc. of California and the Massachusetts company 1366 Technologies Inc. They will each work on cost-cutting “kerfless” wafer technologies (kerf refers to material lost when cut into with a saw — we had to look that up, too, so that’s why we’re giving them a mention).
We’ll round out this edited list with Suniva. The company crossed our radar back in 2010 when it partnered with GS Battery USA Inc., a US subsidiary of the Japanese company GS Yuasa Group of Japan, to demonstrate a solar array and energy storage combo at the battery company’s US headquarters in Georgia.
The new award gives Suniva a matching grant of $2.3 million to partner up with the Georgia Institute of Technology and a company called Tempress Technologies (aka Amtech), to combine a high efficiency thin film solar cell (≥ 22.5% efficiency) with a high volume, low-cost manufacturing process.