Steve Chu, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, and Dick Swanson, founder of SunPower (Nasdaq: SPWRA) (now on his victory lap), joined on a conference call Friday morning to herald the DOE's SunShot initiative. (The program is called SunShot -- think Moon Shot, JFK, etc.)

Swanson cited DOE's early support of SunPower as a factor in SunPower's current success. DOE's Cathy Zoi spoke of this program a few weeks ago.

The SunShot initiative looks to reduce the total costs of photovoltaic solar energy systems by about 75% so that they are cost-competitive with other forms of energy without subsidies before 2020. Chu is targeting $1 per watt, which he said corresponds to roughly 6 cents per kilowatt-hour.
 
Chu said that SunShot will work to bring down the full cost of solar -- including the costs of the solar cells and installation -- by focusing on four main pillars:

  • Technologies for solar cells and arrays.
  • Power electronics that optimize the performance of the installation.
  • Improvements in the efficiency of solar manufacturing processes.
  • Installation, design and permitting for solar energy systems.

"Variable costs related to permitting, inspection, and interconnection are killing our industry's ability to achieve speed and scale," said Doug Payne, executive director of SolarTech. "We applaud the SunShot initiative on its own merits. Going further, we would like to see it married with a Great Solar Race speed limit of 1GW/hour -- a real-time national reporting metric that tracks aggregated, hourly grid connection of all forms of renewable energy."

There are nine projects getting a total of $27 million in funding, and they include:

  • 1366 Technologies ($3 million, Lexington, Mass.): The goal of this project is to further develop a new manufacturing process that dramatically reduces the cost of producing silicon wafers for use in silicon PV modules. The Direct Wafer process delivers significant improvements in manufacturing efficiency since it does not require sawing individual wafers from blocks of silicon. 1366 may not produce a commercial technology, but it is adept at getting DOE funding.
  • 3M (NYSE: MMM) ($4.4 million, St. Paul, Minn.): The goal of this project is to develop and commercialize a flexible, highly transparent Ultra Barrier Topsheet that will enable successful commercialization of flexible photovoltaic modules.
  • PPG (NYSE: PPG) ($3.1 million, Cheswick, Pa.): The goal of this project is to develop the materials, coating designs, and manufacturing processes necessary to commercialize a new glass article for the cadmium telluride (CdTe) module manufacturing industry.
  • Varian Semiconductor (Nasdaq: VSEA): ($4.8 million, Gloucester, Mass.): The goal of this project is to reduce the cost of manufacturing interdigitated back contact cells, the most efficient silicon solar cells on the market.
  • Veeco (Nasdaq: VECO) ($4.8 million, Lowell, Mass.): The goal of this project is to accelerate the research and development, integration, and commercialization of an innovative thin-film CIGS (copper, indium, gallium, diselenide) PV multistage thermal deposition production system in order to manufacture cost-efficient CIGS PV solar cells.
     
    In addition. DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory is investing $7 million to fund the latest round of the PV Incubator program, which looks to shorten the commercialization timeline for promising emerging solar technologies.  Awardees include Solexant, Stion, Crystal Solar, and Caelux.
     
    During the call, Chu said that he sees the path to $1 per watt requiring disruptive and rather incremental change. He spoke of 50-micron-thick solar cells and of minimizing loss from sawing, hence his interest in 1366 Technologies. Twin Creeks Solar is also working in this vein.

"The $27 million funding announced today is just part of the department's funding for solar energy programs and the SunShot initiative, not the total funding for the program," according to Jen Stutsman at the DOE's Office of Public Affairs. "DOE's existing solar energy investments are valued at approximately $200 million per year. The awards announced today are only the first step in those investments."

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