Solar Energy Innovations

Companies with innovative, game-changing ways to lower the cost of solar energy have been awarded $5.8 million to work with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The SunShot Incubator Program is an expansion of DOE’s successful Photovoltaic Technology Incubator Program, launched in 2007, which to date has funded $60 million in projects and leveraged $1.3 billion in private investment.

Its primary goal is to advance the timeline and commercial potential of new manufacturing processes and products with the potential for dramatic price improvements. "When these companies work with NREL researchers, they increase the likelihood that they reach their performance and reliability objectives and reach them soon,” NREL Incubator Manager Brian Keyes said. The NREL imprimatur in turn lowers risk and gives assurance to venture capitalists and other private investors that the technology can be a good investment.

The latest awardees selected in a highly competitive process include three companies from California and one from Vermont. They will work with NREL scientists to overcome technical and practical barriers to commercialization and must meet stringent performance deadlines or be dropped from the program.

This year’s awardees include:

Halotechnics of Emeryville, Calif., which was awarded $1 million to develop a two-tank thermal energy storage system operating at 700 degrees C. It uses a novel molten salt that has a low melting point and maintains high stability while transferring heat and storing material. In early tests, it has demonstrated unprecedented efficiency with solar thermal storage, making it a promising technology for concentrating solar power (CSP).

Renewable Power Conversion, Inc., of San Luis Obispo, Calif., which was awarded $793,325 to improve its advanced photovoltaic (PV) inverter technology. Its inverter gives indications of lasting 25 years while maximizing system efficiency, which, sold commercially, would help reduce the levelized cost of renewable energy loaded onto the grid.

Solaflect Energy of Norwich, Vt., which was awarded $999,595 to further develop and refine the design of its Suspension Heliostat. It’s an innovative heliostat design that could disrupt the market by using 60 to 65 percent less steel than a traditional design, thus reducing significantly the cost of the mirror field in a concentrated solar power plant.

Tigo Energy of Los Gatos, Calif., which was awarded $3,026,000 to ramp up to pilot production its innovative and low-cost DC arc-fault detector. The unique detector enhances the safety of photovoltaic arrays, reduces ongoing operations and maintenance costs for system owners, and complies with all applicable codes and standards for new and retrofit applications in residential, commercial, and utility-scale systems.

Previous awardees including Calisolar and Abound Solar successfully developed new PV technologies with DOE support and are now rapidly scaling their domestic manufacturing operations while creating jobs in their communities. Calisolar currently has about 190 employees in California and 75 MW of capacity. Abound currently has about 350 employees in Colorado and 65 MW of manufacturing capacity with plans to expand to 840 MW with a recently announced $400 million federal loan guarantee.

In this round, companies were selected in one of two categories: Tier 1, representing the development of commercially viable prototypes, receiving up to $1 million over 12 months; and Tier 2, representing the development and manufacturing scale-up of pilot-scale processes receiving up to $4 million over 18 months.

NREL is the Department of Energy’s primary national laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development. NREL is operated for DOE by The Alliance for Sustainable Energy, LLC.