US Energy Department awards $60 million for solar research and development

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The U.S. Energy Department on Tuesday announced $60 million in grants to support innovative solar energy research and development.

The investments are part of the Department’s SunShot Initiative and in line with the Obama administration’s broad-based plan to cut carbon pollution and support clean energy innovation across the country.

"The tremendous growth in the U.S. solar industry over the past few years is helping to pave the way to a cleaner, more sustainable energy future that protects our air and water and provides affordable clean energy to more and more Americans," said Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

"Responsible development of all of America’s rich energy resources is an important part of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan and will help ensure America’s continued leadership in clean energy innovation."

Over the last three years, the cost of a solar energy system has dropped by more than 70%, according to the Department. The latest series of awards are aimed at further reducing costs, including soft costs like permitting, installation and interconnection, as well as improving hardware performance and efficiency.

Since 2007, more than 50 U.S. start-ups have participated in the SunShot Incubator Program, attracting more than $1.7 billion in private sector backing, or nearly $18 for every $1 of government support.

The Energy Department’s new investments include more than $12 million across 17 companies to help commercialize a wide range of technologies and services – from online tools that can map a rooftop’s solar potential to automated installation systems for utility scale photovoltaic plants.

Some $16 million will go to four projects that are helping develop solar devices that near the theoretical efficiency limits of single junction solar cells — about 30% efficiency. The Department is also awarding about $7 million to develop stronger, more reliable solar components as well as dependable performance tests for microinverters and microconverters, which provide easier installation and more effective capture of energy for both photovoltaic and concentrating solar power systems.

From 2008 to 2012, the United States more than doubled generation of electricity from wind, solar and geothermal sources, according to the U.S. Energy Department. The Obama administration has set a goal to double renewable electricity generation again by 2020.

"As the cost of solar continues to fall and deployment expands, seamless and efficient grid integration will help make variable clean energy resources even more affordable, while giving Americans more control over how they use energy in their homes and businesses," the Department said.

In addition, the Department is investing about $8 million to help utilities forecast and integrate high levels of renewable energy generation into the grid, while ensuring reliable and affordable power. For example, AWS Truepower will help California utilities feed cost-competitive distributed solar directly into the power grid, while the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association will help 150 U.S. counties deploy new solar capacity and model streamlined financing and installation processes for electric cooperatives nationwide.

As part of the government’s support effort for America’s growing solar workforce, the Energy Department is providing training for engineers and utility workers as well as student research opportunities. The U.S. solar industry currently employs about 119,000 workers at more than 5,600 companies across every state. Since 2010, the solar industry has created nearly 20,000 new jobs in the U.S.

In addition, the Department is awarding some $15 million to develop power engineering curricula and launch four regional training consortiums. Led by U.S. universities, utilities and industry, these consortiums will train the next generation of energy engineers, system operators and utility professionals.

About $1 million is going to Delaware State University and the University of Texas at San Antonio to provide solar energy research and education opportunities to minority students.

The Energy Department’s SunShot Initiative is a collaborative national effort that aggressively drives innovation to make solar energy fully cost-competitive with traditional energy sources by the end of the decade.

Read more about some of the main recipients of SunShot funding.