DOE bets on sunny future for US solar power

The Department of Energy's new SunShot Initiative aims to lower solar installation costs by 75 percent. Could it give the U.S. solar industry a shot against China?
Written by Melissa Mahony, Contributor

The Department of Energy swung for the sun on Friday, announcing a plan to make solar power more affordable. The SunShot Initiative is another effort to advance President Obama's clean energy push.

SunShot, an allusion to President Kennedy's "moon shot" quest of sending someone to the moon, is trying to launch solar power into better price competition with coal and our solar industry into better competition internationally. The initiative has its sights on lowering utility scale solar installation costs by 75 percent.

CNET quotes Energy Secretary Steven Chu:

If it gets down to $1 per watt, it really means that you're generating electricity that's comparable to or lower than other sources of generating electricity, so it becomes the low-cost option. We want this to be competitive without subsidies.

Getting solar costs down to what Chu says would be roughly six cents per kilowatt-hour would require boosts in how solar cells can convert sunlight to electricity and how manufacturers produce the solar systems. Chu went on to say that either thin-film solar materials need to become more efficient or silicon cell manufacturers need to waste less silicon.

Nine domestic solar companies received $27 million to improve solar cell technology, installation performance, manufacturing efficiency, or permitting processes. Most of the funds ($20.3 million) went to the manufacturing front.

The AP reports:

Many U.S. solar industry advocates have long complained that the Chinese government's support of its solar companies has enabled its companies to take market share from U.S. manufacturers.

Chinese companies such as Suntech Power Holdings Co have made inroads into both European and U.S. markets, and now supply about two-thirds of the global market. Suntech said on Thursday it had sold 250 megawatts of panels in North America last year, about 25 percent of the total market.

The DOE sent the remaining $7 million of the funds toward quickening the solar tech's pace between development and commercialization. The big winner under this category was Crystal Solar. The California-based company will get $4 million to find a cheaper way to produce and handle thin silicon wafers. Using less silicon, the agency says the single crystal silicon wafers are four times thinner than standard solar cells.

The other three recipients under this umbrella were also from California. Caelux hopes to lessen the amount of semiconducting material used in flexible solar cells. Solexant will source materials that are neither rare nor toxic, and Stion will focus on stacking two high-efficiency solar devices for better light absorption.

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Image: NASA

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