U.S. betting on concentrated solar

Department of Energy plans to invest $60 million in research as part of an effort to reduce cost of solar in U.S. and reach six cents per kilowatt-hour by decade's end.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu. Department of Energy

The Department of Energy has decided to invest $60 million over the next three years to develop and commercialize concentrated solar technology, Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced yesterday afternoon.

This investment comes out of the U.S. government's SunShot Initiative, a plan to reduce the cost of solar energy in the U.S. by 75 percent in order to make it more cost effective and competitive with other energy sources, according to Chu.

What is interesting about this particular funding is that the DOE seems to have listened to the critics of concentrated solar and gotten very specific about what it's willing to fund. It lists the particular breakthroughs in concentrated solar it's looking to achieve through this funding including improving temperature ranges, efficiency, and design of collectors.

"Developing low-cost collectors, high-temperature receivers, and high-efficiency power cycles should lead to subsequent system integration, engineering scale-up, and eventual commercial production for clean electricity generation applications," the DOE said in a statement.

It also wants "disruptive technology" that could meet "6 cents per kilowatt-hour cost targets by the end of the decade."

The language is notably similar to what some private investors have been suggesting. Seeking out and funding disruptive breakthroughs that might take time to develop, but have the potential to impact an industry in a big way has been the mantra of several leading green tech venture capitalists, most notably tech luminary Bill Joy of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Kleiner Perkins has already been a big investor in some concentrated solar projects.

While there are several different types of technology, concentrated solar generally relies on reflecting a concentrated amount of solar energy at a substance that retains heat, and using that heat to generate electricity. The advantage is that the heat retention of the absorbing material, in some cases molten salt, allows a plant to continue producing electricity for several hours after the sun stops shining, offering a more steady output when compared to silicon solar cells.

The agency hopes the funding will be able to aid at least 20 projects and encourages both academic and private institutions alike to apply for the money.

"Our nation is in a global race to produce cost-competitive renewable energy that can create manufacturing jobs, cut our reliance on fossil fuels, and reduce carbon emissions," Chu said in a statement. "The funding announced today through the SunShot Initiative will help unleash the vast potential of solar energy to diversify our energy portfolio, create clean energy jobs, and re-establish U.S. global leadership in this fast growing industry."

Of course, $60 million is not really a ton of money compared to other DOE-backed projects. In concentrated solar alone, the DOE has already agreed to $2 billion in the form of loan guarantees to build two large concentrated solar plants using parabolic solar thermal troughs.

The announcement comes at a time when many are questioning whether the wind and solar industries in the U.S. can survive without the financial help or political backing of the federal government.

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