Climate activists have been turning up the heat on two Democratic holdouts who are on the verge of smothering President Biden’s ambitious climate plans, the well known coal stakeholder Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and the somewhat lesser known but spotlight-grabbing Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Whether or not they continue to hold out is an open question as of this writing. However, one thing is certain: Coal is on the way out. Perhaps perovskite solar cells will help fully close the door one day.
The Disruptive Potential Of The Perovskite Solar Cell
Ever since the US fell out of the global silicon solar cell race in the 1980s, policymakers have been lusting after an alternative photovoltaic technology that could be manufactured in the US, at scale, and at a price point that could beat imported silicon solar cells.
Somewhere around 2009, the Department of Energy hit upon synthetic perovskite as a potential solution. Instead of a solid mass that needs to be tailored mechanically, the meat of a perovskite solar cell is a solution of relatively inexpensive, lab-grown nanoscale crystals that can be applied like ink to practically any surface.
If you’re thinking roll-to-roll, run right out and buy yourself a cigar. If all goes according to plan, a perovskite solar cell facility could be run like a print shop, churning out reams of solar cells at high volume with minimal waste.
Perovskites could be the next big thing after plastics, but it’s not that simple. Not just any old synthetic perovskite nanocrystals can get the job done. They need to be tailored with other substances for durability. That can jack up the cost, which kind of pulls the rug out from under the whole idea of the perovskite solar cell to begin with.
Perovskite Solar Cell Activity Heats Up
Energy is energy, and it seems that some oil and gas stakeholders have taken the model of plastics to heart in pursuit of the next big thing. The company Hunt Perovksite Technologies, for example, is an offshoot of Hunt Consolidated Group, which has a long history in the fossil energy field. In an interesting move, earlier this year HPT merged with the perovskite solar cell startup 1366 Technologies to form a new perovskite venture called CubicPV.
Shell is another fossil stakeholder with a hand in the perovskite solar cell pot. In 2018, the company kickstarted the GCxN clean technology accelerator at the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and GCxN has the perovskite solar cell startup BlueDot Photonics under its wing.
Last May, NREL also organized a consortium of perovskite solar cell stakeholders, consisting of BlueDot, Energy Materials Corporation, First Solar, Hunt Perovskites Technologies (now CubicPV), Swift Solar, and Tandem PV.
Perovskite Promise Gets Real
That brings us to the latest news in the perovskite solar cell area. Last year CleanTechnica caught up with GCxN program manager Adam Duran, and he had this to say about BlueDot:
“It’s promising technology, nascent technology that they are developing quickly. They are working on a creative manufacturing technology that will help reduce costs,” he said. “It’s a novel approach to how they go through the production. This is an opportunity to take their laboratory technology and start thinking about what it would look like to do production-sized panels.”
It seems that others have caught on, including the cleantech investor group Volo Earth, which is an affiliate of NREL and the influential green organization RMI.
Last spring BlueDot raised a $1 million round of Series Seed financing through VoLo Earth Ventures. Boston-based Clean Energy Venture Group and the Seattle firm E8 were also involved, to be joined later by the nonprofit firm VertueLab of Portland, Oregon.
In the latest development, last week, Japan’s Hamamatsu Photonics K.K. announced that it had jumped into the BlueDot pool through its US branch.
“We’ve been impressed with BlueDot Photonics, which is developing a unique optical technology to improve the efficiency of solar power generation, and through investment, we hope to contribute to climate change countermeasures,” said HP President and CEO Akira Hiruma.
The seal of approval from one of the top optoelectronics marketers in the world probably won’t do much to change the minds of perovskite skeptics. However, the Hamamatsu edge could finally jolt the entire perovskite field out of the lab and onto the shelves of your local hardware store.
“Having Hamamatsu as a strategic partner is a big win for us. They are photonics experts, and their engagement will help us avoid commercialization pitfalls and identify new opportunities for our products. This will also help BlueDot consider markets outside of North America as we grow in the future,” explained BlueDot CEO Jared Silvia.
They may not be alone. Our friends over at the journal Nature recently noted that at least one legacy optoelectronics company has dipped a toe in the perovskite solar cell waters, only to bail. However, Nature also lists Panasonic and Toshiba among those still in hot pursuit of perovskite PV, along with the leading wind turbine manufacturer Goldwind of China.
Perovskites, Solar Tariffs, & The Manchin-Sinema Dance
In an echo of Silvia’s comment about “new opportunities,” Nature also teased out some hints that early markets for perovksite solar cells will be niche ones. If you have any thoughts about that, drop us a note in the comment thread.
In the meantime, NREL has been dropping hints that its 30-year collaboration on thin-film solar technology with the US firm First Solar could help push perovskites into the big leagues.
If the name First Solar brings to mind that new super secret solar tariff petition filed before the US Department of Commerce by an anonymous group companies reportedly in the solar field, you are probably not alone. However, the attorney who filed the petition is partners in a law firm that has counted the fossil-friendly organization ALEC among its roster of clients, so it’s not particularly obvious that the companies behind the petition have any significant stake in the US solar industry, especially not on the level of First Solar. It’s virtually the only true soup-to-nuts solar manufacturer in the US with domestic roots.
If you have any other guesses, drop a note in the comment thread — but you may not have to guess much longer. Last week the Commerce Department was apparently not impressed by the content of the petition, and it asked for the names of the companies behind it.
Meanwhile, the transformative potential of the perovskite solar cell dovetails neatly with President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda, which he and others have characterized as a transformative step that will save the planet from catastrophic climate change, undo generations of structural inequality in the US, and establish American democracy as the unstoppable 21st century counterforce to authoritarianism, fascism, dictatorship, autocracy, oligarchy, and whatever else.
That’s a pretty full plate, and last week it looked like Senators Manchin and Sinema were on track to blow it all up — or not, as the case may be.
On Friday evening, President Biden apparently put his foot down, so let’s see what happens next.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Photo (screenshot via YouTube): Perovskite solar cell courtesy of Shell Game Changer Accelerator at NREL.