US Solar Cell Innovators Tackle US Manufacturing Challenges

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President* Trump made a lot of promises to coal miners during his 2016 campaign, but the US power generation sector continues to shed coal power like a wet sock after a cold march — with a healthy assist from the US Energy Department, to boot. In the latest development, the agency’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory has just launched the next stage of a national competition aimed at ramping up US solar cell manufacturing, which will chase even more coal out of the picture even more quickly.

Solar Cell Manufacturing In The USA

DOE has been working the renewable energy angle from all angles, and that includes reviving the nation’s moribund solar cell manufacturing sector.

Remember when scientists at Bell Labs invented silicon solar cells and US companies went on to lead the world in solar cell manufacturing? If you do, drop us a note in the comment thread. The US never did fully capitalize on its early lead in solar manufacturing and it is running way behind the pack.

Although US solar cell manufacturing growth has occurred recently, it’s a day late and a dollar short. Last year the Congressional Research Service summarized the current state of affairs thusly:

…An August 2017 ITC [International Trade Commission] report found that between 2012 and 2016, production capacity of U.S. PV module manufacturers rose 34%, and domestic production expanded by 24%. Nonetheless, falling prices have made it difficult for domestic PV manufacturers to operate profitably. From January 1, 2012, to July 2017, more than two dozen domestic PV producers were in bankruptcy or shuttered their U.S. operations.


Making America Great Again, Solar Cell Edition

Well, that certainly gives new meaning to the Commander-in-Chief’s campaign slogan. Though apparently intended to hearken back to peak US coal employment (like say, the 1920s), that thing about making America great again could just as well apply the nation’s role in jumpstarting the global solar industry.

For that matter, the notorious Trump solar tariff has been credited with fostering a recent gain in US PV manufacturing capacity, though the overall effect on US solar employment has been a mixed bag (keeping in mind that state-level policies can have a far greater impact on solar deployment that anything wandering out of Washington, DC).

Anyways, it appears that the National Renewable Energy Laboratory is not waiting around for the solar tariff to fade out, as it is scheduled to do. NREL launched the Energy Department’s new American-Made Solar Prize competition on June 7 2018, with the aim of giving the US solar manufacturing sector a new jolt of energy, by shepherding collaborative efforts between federal research labs, innovators, and entrepreneurs.

Here we are a year later and NREL has just announced a group of 10 teams that made it through the first round of vetting, competing against more than 150 other projects for the coveted spots (shoutout to the clean tech incubator Greentown Labs for hosting the competition, btw).

Each of the 10 teams gets $100,000 to help fund their progress toward the second phase of the competition, so it ain’t over ’til it’s over. The two teams that survive Round 2 are eligible to split an additional $500,000 in cash prizes.

They’ll also get up to $75,000 worth of assistance at the national laboratories or other qualified facilities, all aimed at accelerating the leap from project development to the commercial market.

Many Paths To Better, US Cheaper Solar

The price of solar cells is just one factor that goes into the installed cost of a new solar array, and the 10 first-round teams represent different approaches to reducing the cost of solar power.

The innovations include new inverters, power systems and controllers, fire safety systems, and rooftop solar modules and racking systems, as well as new lifecycle-designed solar cells that provide for improved resource reclamation at the back end.

One especially interesting project dovetails with the march toward manufacturing in the home construction industry. The team, Phase3 Photovoltaics is working on a “novel power integration system that enables PV systems to be integrated on manufactured homes during the manufacturing process.”

CleanTechnica is reaching out to Phase3 for more details about the project, so stay tuned for more on that.

Also of particular interest among the 10 prize winners is a perovskite-silicon solar cell hybrid developed by Tandem PV (formerly Iris PV) because perovskite.

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*Developing story.

Image: Perovskite-silicon solar cell via US Department of Energy.

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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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