Failed Insurrection Fails To Stop US Solar Power Juggernaut

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The fallout from last week’s violent attack on members of Congress and the Vice President is still falling out, but it seems that the US Department of Energy just can’t contain itself. The agency has been bursting at the seams with consequential renewable energy programs all throughout the soon-to-be-over Trump administration, and last Friday — just two days after the attack — it announced three new and exciting developments in the solar power field.

solar power USA renewable energy
US Energy Department really, really wants you to know that the US solar power revolution is alive and kicking (image via US DOE).

Yes, Bursting At The Seams With Clean Power Programs

Before we get to those three new and exciting developments, let’s pause for a quick take on that viral video message that former California Governor and current climate activist Arnold Schwarzenegger circulated on Sunday, in reaction to the failed resurrection.

Schwarzenegger is a lifelong Republican, but he slammed *President Trump and his supporters for the firehose of lies they have played on the American public in regards to the 2020 General Election.

The same could be said for just about anything else the President has focused his attention on, especially the idea that he would save coal jobs.

That idea went out the window within the first two years of his administration. Oil and gas stakeholders haven’t fared much better.

Instead, over the past four years the stage has been set for a rapid decarbonization of the US economy. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, by Q3 of 2020 the US solar industry was on track for another record-breaking year. The Atlantic coast offshore wind industry is finally poised for a breakthrough, and the Gulf of Mexico and Pacific coast are not far behind. Meanwhile, GM and other automakers are pushing the renewable energy envelop in tandem with their transition to electric vehicles, and the green hydrogen trend is already threatening to squeeze natural gas out of the power generation market.

So Good They Had To Announce It Twice

All of this has been going on with a substantial assist from the US Department of Energy, as part of a long range grid modernization plan that includes energy storage, distributed wind, and universal access to affordable solar power, among many other sparkling green elements (check the CleanTechnica vaults for more).

The January 8 announcement concerns a competitive, four-round Energy Department program called the American-Made Solar Prize, which launched in June of 2018. The idea is to offer financial incentives and other support to innovators who can come up with ways to break down cost and accessibility barriers to solar power.

Rounds 1 and 2 whittled down a field of entries to 10 semifinalists, and on January 8th the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory issued a press release to remind everyone that the Energy Department had announced two solar innovators  as the Round 3 winners back on December 4.

Interesting! Did nobody pay any attention to that December 4 announcement? CleanTechnica did! We ran the Energy Department’s solar award press release as a guest post just three days later, on December 7. Here’s what they said:

“On December 4, 2020, two winning teams were announced at a live virtual event. Each team received $500,000 in cash and $75,000 in vouchers to use at the National Laboratories and other qualified fabrication facilities.”

Maybe that was not enough to satisfy the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The January 8 announcement puts the extra-special NREL sparkle on the endeavor, emphasizing that the two winners had “highly disruptive and impactful ideas that addressed gaps in the solar market,” in addition to demonstrating that they have a good chance of getting their idea off the drawing table and onto the shelves of your local hardware store.

“The two Round 3 winners were chosen for substantially and rapidly advancing their solutions from proof-of-concept to refined prototypes and finding partners to perform pilot tests of the prototypes,” NREL explained.

Flywheels & Solar Power, Perfect Together

One of the Round 3 winners is especially exciting because it involves flywheel technology, something has crossed the CleanTechnica radar before, but not often, and not recently. Here’s what we said about flywheels all the way back in 2010:

“Flywheels are the ultimate green energy storage machines. They store energy mechanically, like a wind-up toy, so they don’t involve large quantities of lead, acid, or other environmental hazards, and they have a much longer lifespan than conventional batteries.”

There being no such thing as a free lunch, earlier attempts at integrating flywheel energy storage with solar power revealed that the technology needed to shed its steampunk roots and take advantage of new materials.

The firm Maxout Renewables of Livermore, California came up with a holistic approach to flywheel engineering that enabled it to nail down one of the two winning Round 3 slots. The company’s “Evergrid” appliance is designed as an affordable, compact energy storage device and microgrid manager that can enable a home with rooftop solar panels to go into island mode in case the grid goes out.

That affordability factor is the key element. Gas and diesel emergency generators are commonplace, and battery-style home energy storage is also coming into vogue, but none of these solutions offer the combination of zero emissions, affordability, and enough juice to power an entire household.

So far Maxout estimates it can offer Evergrid at just $1,000 per unit, thousands less than emergency generators and battery-style storage systems.

That’s good news for the estimated  2 million grid-connected homes in the US that have solar panels but no backup power, and that’s just the beginning. The prospect of affordable energy storage could also propel the small scale rooftop solar market into new heights.

How high? Well, a 2016 NREL study projected that small buildings with suitable rooftop solar potential could support up to 732 gigawatts of solar capacity, with another 386 gigawatts for medium and large buildings.

Georgia Tech Comes Through Again

Weren’t we just saying that we’ll be paying more attention to Georgia from now on? We were! The other Round 3 winner is Atlanta-based Wattch Inc., which is the brainchild of three innovators who met through the solar race team of the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Wattch is focused on the large-scale side of the solar power market, with a hardware and monitoring platform aimed at increasing the efficiency of commercial and industrial solar arrays. That includes predictive maintenance schedules, and remote and automated diagnostics, in addition to fine tuning lifetime energy yield models.

Interesting! Solar panel efficiency is impacted by real-world factors including ground albedo along with temperature and dust, so we’re thinking that Wattch could find itself playing a key role in the growth of the agrivoltaics field, which involves designing solar arrays to complement regenerative farming practices that build soil health while boosting solar cell efficiency, too.

Solar Power Juggernaut In The US

This is all by way of saying that the US has barely scratched the surface of its potential to lead the global energy transition, and much of the groundwork has been laid in advance of the climate-friendly Joe Biden administration.

In the January 8 announcement, NREL also reminded everyone that the Solar Prize has already provided $12.7 million in cash prizes and technical support to 80 solar power startups.

That brings us to the third new and exciting development. NREL also reminded everyone that Round 4 of the Solar Prize is now under way, featuring a new cohort of 20 semifinalists who are already hammering away at their chance to move up the ladder — all with the help of the Energy Department’s sprawling network of resources and partners.

Perovskite solar cells, self-cleaning solar panels, and solar-powered cars are among the projects under way among the Round 4 cohort, so stay tuned for more on that.

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Image (cropped): via American-Made Challenges.

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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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