Low Cost Solar Goal In Reach, Energy Dept. Set To Blow Right Past It

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So, that was fast. In 2011, the Obama Administration decided that solar power could reach parity with fossil fuels in ten years, and they’re already reaching past the initial goal of six cents per kilowatt hour by 2020. The new idea is to drive the cost of solar power down past fossil fuels and sink it to the range of two or three cents per kilowatt hour by 2030.

To make it happen, the Energy Department has just announced an interesting round of funding that targets relatively small amounts of dollars onto something it calls innovative, early-stage solutions.  The numbers add up to $11 million in funding spread among 16 projects. In case you thought concentrating solar power was dead, there are six CSP projects in the mix, too.

advanced solar technology US DOE

10 New Low Cost Solar Cell Projects

The new round of $11 million for advanced solar R&D is divided into two groups. One group includes 10 small scale projects selected as “first-of-their-kind” efforts for pushing the envelope on solar cell technology and manufacturing.

Under the new round of funding, each of them will get one year to prove their worth. If that rings any bells among you Chopped fans out there, yes the pressure is on.

The idea is to test the concept within the relatively short time frame. If it passes muster, then the winners get additional time to draw out data in support of more funding. The losers get to pack up and go back to the drawing board.

You can find details about the 10 new low cost solar projects in the Energy Department’s SIPS (Small Innovative Projects in Solar) program. For those of you on the go, here’s a recap:

Case Western Reserve University: Interfacial Work Function Modifiers in PV: A Potentially Disruptive Science for Extreme Lifetime Performance. This is a new twist on the familiar CIGS technology aimed at doubling solar cell lifespan.

University of Oregon: Low-Cost III-V Photovoltaic Materials by Chloride Vapor Transport Deposition. The idea is to lower manufacturing costs by deploying a new low-cost carrier gas used in vapor deposition.

University of Florida: Single-Junction Organic Solar Cells with 15% Efficiency. The researchers intend to deploy hydrogen bonding to boost energy output.

South Dakota School of Mines and Technology: Aluminum Epilayers for Controlled Growth and Processing of High-Efficiency, Low-Cost III-V Solar Cells. This is a manufacturing technique that allows for the use of aluminum as a cheap, reusable substrate for growing thin film solar cells.

University at Buffalo, the State University of New York: Green, Stable and Earth Abundant Ionic Photovoltaic Absorbers Based on Chalcogenide Perovskite. Perovskite is a familiar topic around CleanTechnica and our sister site PlanetSave. It seems that this project is aimed at moving away from conventional lead-based perovskite solar cells. Chalcogens are in the “oxygen” part of the periodic table and yes I had to look that up.

Colorado State University: Novel Approach to Front-Contact Passivation for Cadmium Telluride Photovoltaics. This is a new twist on a familiar solar cell material aimed at improving efficiency.

University of Colorado Boulder: Theoretical Design and Discovery of the Most Promising Previously Overlooked Hybrid Perovskites Compounds. This looks like another workaround for lead in perovskite solar cells (for those of you new to the topic, perovskites are a class of easily synthesized crystals, based on the structure of the naturally occurring mineral perovskite).

Arizona State University: A New Class of Tandems: Optically Coupled III-V/Silicon Module with Outdoor Efficiency Exceeding 30%. They are indeed aiming for 30 percent, helped along by the use of mirrors.

nLiten Energy Corporation: Low‐Cost Nanostructured Substrates for Efficient Epitaxial Lift‐Off of III‐V Solar Cells. This is another manufacturing R&D effort based on a low cost, re-usable substrate for growing thin film solar cells. (nLighten is the only private sector player in this solar funding group).

Arizona State University: Sound Assisted Low Temperature Spalling for Low Cost Silicon. The name pretty much spells it out. The researchers will demonstrate how to cut costs by cutting silicon without kerf loss (I had to look that one up, too — kerf refers to the loss of material when something is cut, for example by sawing).

CSP low cost solar

Great News For Concentrating Solar Power Fans

Concentrating solar power is still relatively expensive, and it has attracted a fair share of critics. However, costs have been coming down and the Energy Department is still a big fan.

The new round of funding includes six CSP projects under the agency’s Concentrating Optics for Lower Levelized Energy Costs (COLLECTS) program. This program reaches past its original 2020 cost-cutting goal by focusing on the solar collectors in a CSP plant.

That area of focus has a lot of promise because, according to the Energy Department, the collectors of today account for up to 40 percent of the total cost of a CSP plant, making them the single largest expense.

The six awardees are Agira Inc., University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, Giant Leap Technologies, University of California San Diego, Hyperlight Energy, and Sunvapor Inc.

Shifting Picture For US Energy Landscape

If the new research projects pan out, that’s more bad news for the nuclear industry. Nuclear fans have been hammering away at new technologies in order to stay competitive with low cost wind in the US, but it looks like they’re playing whack-a-mole with the threat of super-low solar power looming less than 15 years away.

Offshore wind is still high up there in the cost range, but the US has not yet tapped its offshore resources. Once the offshore wind bottleneck breaks (and it is breaking), costs will come down.

On the fossil side, natural gas fracking has been pushing coal out of the US electricity generation marketplace. That’s going to keep on happening if Republican candidate Donald Trump takes the Oval Office.

It looks like fracking is set for a tumble under a Hillary Clinton presidency but that won’t save coal if both wind and solar costs continue to drop, which they will.

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Image: via US DOE.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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