NREL to invest in early-stage solar technologies

The funding will be available to start-up companies through the DOE National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) PV Technology Incubator program. The goal is to advance the timeline and commercial capability of new manufacturing processes and products, "with the potential for dramatic price improvements". ??

NREL incubator manager Martha Symko-Davies explains: "The start-up companies awarded under the Incubator program will truly benefit the manufacturing processes and products in the United States through rapid commercialization of these innovative technologies."

The investment represents the fourth installment of the PV Incubator program. According to the NREL, previous awardees, which include Calisolar and Abound Solar, have successfully developed new PV technologies with DOE support and are now "rapidly" scaling their domestic manufacturing operations and creating jobs in their communities.

It explains that Calisolar currently has around 190 employees in California and 75 megawatts (MW) of capacity with plans to expand to 220 MW. Meanwhile, Abound is said to have about 350 employees in Colorado and 65 MW of manufacturing capacity. It now plans to expand to 775 MW with a recently announced USD$400 million federal loan guarantee.

In terms of the selection process, companies were placed in one of two categories, which the NREL describes as: "Tier 1, representing the development of commercially viable prototypes, receiving up to USD$1 million over 12 months; and Tier 2, representing the development and manufacturing scale-up of pilot-scale processes receiving up to USD$4 million over 18 months."

The NREL goes on to say that, subject to negotiation, Tier 1 projects could include:

  • Caelux, a company located in Pasadena, California, which is said to be developing a novel flexible solar cell manufacturing process and design. It is expected to dramatically reduce production costs by minimizing the amount of semiconductor material used, says NREL, while also having vast potential to surpass standard device efficiency.??
  • Solexant, situated in San Jose, California, which is reportedly developing a new thin film material comprised entirely of non-toxic, abundant materials, including copper, zinc, tin, selenide, and/or sulfur (CZTS). These devices will be constructed with a non-particle ink that can be printed. NREL explains that this could result in commercially viable efficiencies using scalable, low-cost processes.
  • Stion, also based in San Jose, California, which is said to be developing a thin film technology that will allow two high-efficiency thin film solar devices to be stacked, thus allowing for much better absorption of light and creation of power. The devices are constructed in a way that significantly reduces cost, simplifies manufacturing and reduces material utilization over traditional designs, explains NREL.

Furthermore, the Tier 2 project could include:

  • Crystal Solar, based in Santa Clara, California, which NREL says is developing a new technology for the fabrication, handling, processing and packaging of very thin single-crystal silicon wafers (four times thinner than standard cells). This solution uses much less silicon, eliminating many of the wasteful and expensive wafer-processing steps and addressing the problem of handling very thin wafers, says the laboratory.