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US Funding For Solar Hardware Manufacturing Innovation

This third round of US DOE Solar Energy Technologies Office projects concerns innovations in manufacturing for solar hardware.

Continuing a decades-long trend, the US Department of Energy (DOE) has put a few million dollars into further research and development of solar power technologies — $130 million, to be precise.

The goals of the funding are to “reduce the cost of solar, increase U.S. manufacturing competitiveness, and improve the reliability of the nation’s electric grid.”

$130 million may sound like a lot on the surface, but in the context of the US Department of Energy budget, it’s tiny. Also, considering that the $130 million gets spread across dozens of projects, the support for each effort is probably not as significant as it seems at first glance.

Though, $130 million is $130 million more than $0 — and a few million dollars here and a few million dollars there can lead to some exciting successes. So, we’re taking a look at the 67 research projects across 30 states that the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Office is sending $130 million to.

This third round of projects concerns innovations in manufacturing for solar hardware. Below are DOE summaries of how it intends to help in this arena as well as awardee details from the DOE:

Innovations in Manufacturing: Hardware Incubator

“$14 million for 10 research projects that will advance innovative prototypes to a pre-commercial stage, including products that support U.S. solar manufacturing and reduce the cost of installation.” Awardee details from the DOE:

BrightSource Energy

Project Name: Coatings for CSP Lifetime
Location: Oakland, CA
DOE Award Amount: $1,100,000
Awardee Cost Share: $280,000
Principal Investigator: Yaniv Binyamin
Project Summary: Next generation concentrating solar-thermal power (CSP) receivers will operate at temperatures of up to 800°C, which will require new receivers to use high-strength nickel super-alloys. In order to develop new high-performance coatings (HPCs) for these receivers, this project will validate a lifetime assessment methodology for HPCs by comparing failure modes and degradation rates seen in lab tests with real operational results. This will be performed by developing models and test suites that simulate the failure modes and degradation rates under a combination of realistic conditions. The suite will be used to test existing coatings in comparison with their actual performance in operational projects as well as the new HPC, resulting in a tool that can be used for lifetime assessment of any future coating.

Element 16 Technologies

Project Name: Low-Cost Sulfur Thermal Storage for Solar Industrial Process Heat
Location: Glendale, CA
DOE Award Amount: $1,400,000
Awardee Cost Share: $600,000
Principal Investigator: Karthik Nithyanandam
Project Summary: This project aims to scale up and demonstrate a low-cost sulfur thermal energy storage (TES) system integrated with Hyperlight’s disruptive linear Fresnel collector system in order to reach a levelized cost of heat less than $0.014 per kilowatt-hour. This project builds upon Element 16’s past work funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy and Hyperlight’s past work funded by SETO. The team will conduct pilot scale testing and demonstration as well as physics-based simulation and analytics. The sulfur TES will be demonstrated at 1 megawatt (MWht) scale to store heat from concentrated solar-thermal power technology during peak hours of the day for uninterrupted process heat generation. The project will demonstrate energy efficiency improvements, economic benefits, and measurable emissions reductions in industrial facilities. A sophisticated cost and economic model will be developed and validated to guide the storage development process.


Project Name: Outdoor Autonomous Manipulation of Photovoltaic Panels (O-AMPP)
Location: Pittsburgh, PA
DOE Award Amount: $1,900,000
Awardee Cost Share: $510,000
Principal Investigator: Amanda Sgroi
Project Summary: This project aims to develop a novel, outdoor, autonomous, robotic system using state-of-the-art computer vision and machine learning techniques. If successful, this system will decrease labor required for this process by 75%, reduce total soft costs as much as 10% (approximately $0.02-$0.05 per Watt), and create a 38% reduction in total construction time for a new solar field.

Silicon Valley Materials Technology Corp

Project Name: Improvement of Screen-Printable Metallization Paste for Low-Cost Silicon Solar Cells Utilizing Silver-Coated Copper Powders
Location: San Diego, CA
DOE Award Amount: $1,600,000
Awardee Cost Share: $480,000
Principal Investigator: Richard Stephenson
Project Summary: In silicon solar cells, screen-printed silver has been used as the metal of choice because of its high conductivity, even though it is more expensive than the alternative copper. However, copper requires a barrier to avoid diffusion into the silicon. To circumvent these expensive steps and chemicals required in that process, this project is developing a screen-printable silver copper paste where the copper is shelled and mixed with silver and other ingredients to avoid the penetration of copper into silicon during production. The paste will be demonstrated on passivated emitter and rear contact cells. This work will help to achieve a levelized cost of electricity of $0.03 per kilowatt-hour for solar energy.

Sinton Instruments

Project Name: Contactless Production Testing of Silicon Solar Cells
Location: Boulder, CO
DOE Award Amount: $540,000
Awardee Cost Share: $180,000
Principal Investigator: Ronald Sinton
Project Summary: Cost reductions in silicon solar cells are made by minimizing the use of expensive silver in gridlines, which reduces the electrical contact area and makes cells extremely difficult to test and sort prior to manufacturing. Standard illuminated current-voltage (I-V) testing is being performed with up to 12 probe bars, which obscures the solar cell from the light source and compromises data integrity. This project will assess the possibility to radically change the I-V test station by enabling diagnostic tools to sort the cells with relaxed probing requirements. By having a contactless or near-contactless evaluation of the solar cell, handling and maintenance costs could be greatly reduced. Additionally, this project is adding hardware and analysis features to its production tools in order gather redundant production data to reduce automation costs and complexity, accelerating PV cell optimization.


Project Name: Re-Thinking Solar Energy Delivery: Non-Wire Solar-Powered Energy Carriers Integrated with Utility-Scale Generation to Advance Solar Adoption to 30% of Total Generation Before 2030
Location: Seattle, WA
DOE Award Amount: $1,800,000
Awardee Cost Share: $470,000
Principal Investigator: Ranjan Gupta
Project Summary: Sustained advances in solar technologies have led to a levelized cost of electricity of less than $0.03 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) for utility-scale solar, but the delivered cost remains as high as $0.20/kWh in some states due to the ever-increasing costs of operations of transmission and distribution (T&D) infrastructure. This project is developing a non-wire delivery system to circumvent a utility’s T&D in order to accelerate solar adoption and achieve a delivered cost less than $0.15/kWh before 2025. The system includes a utility-scale solar array that is directly connected to an integrated mobile energy storage system with on-board power electronics systems. Since there is no grid-connection, the inverters and the alternating current balance of plant equipment are not required. Such solar plants can be seamlessly built with environmental permits only, eliminating the years-long process to secure grid interconnection rights and thereby eliminating a very large portion of the soft costs. By removing the need for T&D infrastructure, this project aims to lower solar costs as more consumers adopt solar.


Project Name: Reusable Solar PV Module Pallet (PVpallet)
Location: Kirksville, MO
DOE Award Amount: $500,000
Awardee Cost Share: $130,000
Principal Investigator: Luke Phelps
Project Summary: This project is developing a unique, recyclable solar module pallet used in the shipping process. The invention, known as PVpallet, will drastically reduce waste, protect solar module integrity and quality during transportation and distribution, increase warehouse storage capacity, and increase installation efficiency in the field. PVpallet would be a replacement for the traditional, single-use wood pallets. In the U.S. market alone, millions of wood pallets are being disposed of in landfills annually. This work will help to achieve a levelized cost of electricity of $0.03 per kilowatt-hour for solar energy.

Terabase Energy

Project Name: Autonomous Control System for PV Table Delivery and Placement
Location: Berkeley, CA
DOE Award Amount: $1,500,000
Awardee Cost Share: $710,000
Principal Investigator: Dan Cohen
Project Summary: In typical solar power plant construction, large quantities of materials are delivered and manually distributed across the land area for assembly and installation. Large power plants can include thousands of deliveries and millions of individual parts that must be assembled. This project aims to automate onsite material distribution and installation by developing sensors and embedded control systems for the autonomous collection and distribution of solar power plant equipment, including pre-assembled photovoltaic tables, to their installation location.

Toledo Solar

Project Name: Low-Cost Manufacturing of Semitransparent CdTe PV for Building Integration
Location: Perrysburg, OH
DOE Award Amount: $1,700,000
Awardee Cost Share: $630,000
Principal Investigator: Alvin Compaan
Project Summary: This project aims to drive innovations in U.S. building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) manufacturing with attractive, low-cost, high-efficiency solar windows, solar facades, and rooftop solar modules through manufacturing and module innovations in cadmium telluride solar technology. In order to integrate photovoltaics (PV) into the building envelope, the team is developing unique vertical vapor transport deposition methods in conjunction with pulsed laser ablation and novel module design and technology. The technical work will be coupled with developing aesthetics and building requisites with U.S. construction companies. The project will overcome technology hurdles and realize technology metrics sufficient to launch U.S. manufacturing of diverse PV products.

Yaskawa Solectria Solar

Project Name: The BREKTRIA 500 – A Breakthrough in Technology and Power Density for a 500 kW Utility-Scale String Inverter
Location: Lawrence, MA
DOE Award Amount: $2,000,000
Awardee Cost Share: $620,000
Principal Investigator: Miles Russell
Project Summary: This project is creating a state-of-the-art 500 kilowatt (kW) utility-scale string inverter that has unprecedented power density, record-setting efficiency, ultra-low cost potential, and a comprehensive suite of cutting-edge features. The BREKTRIA 500 will be storage-ready and have advanced cybersecurity hardening. Additionally, six of the inverters can be pre-assembled to create a 3 megawatt (MW) building block, for utility projects of any size! The BREKTRIA 500 builds on a laboratory prototype developed after years of research into silicon carbide converters. The cost target is $0.02 per watt and the efficiency target is 99%. Installation cost savings will be approximately $0.02 per watt compared to commercially available utility-scale string inverters.

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