SunShot solar research targets $1 per watt

Recalling the moon shot of the U.S. space program, the Department of Energy seeks to slice solar power costs by 75 percent by the end of decade.

Photovoltaic research at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory/Roy Kaltschmidt

The Department of Energy announced a $27 million research program to slash the cost of solar power by 75 percent in 10 years, making utility-scale solar the same or cheaper as fossil fuel-generated electricity.

Energy Secretary today detailed the SunShot initiative, choosing SunPower co-founder and solar industry pioneer Richard Swanson to speak with him during a conference call. Silicon Valley-based SunPower received DOE research funding dollars early in the company's development and now makes the highest efficiency solar panels.

SunShot seeks to bring down solar costs to $1 per watt installed, by focusing on advances in materials and manufacturing efficiency, Chu said.

"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," he said.

By improving existing solar cells and manufacturing techniques, the cost will continue to fall by about half, he said. But cutting it far further than that will require a jump in cell efficiency, he said. Either thin-film solar materials need significantly better efficiency or silicon cell manufacturers need to reduce the amount of wasted silicon in existing processes, he said.

The bulk of the research funding, or about $20 million, will be dedicated to new manufacturing processes in the U.S. industry solar supply chain, which includes the power electronics needed for solar installations.

The SunShot initiative will seek to coordinate across different energy research agencies, including national labs, and work with solar companies, according to the DOE.

Chu's announcement of details around the SunShot Initiative come during a week where the Obama administration is trying to build public support for its plan to invest in clean energy research and development to spur economic growth.

 

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