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Meet the DOE's SunShot winners: 69 projects aiming to cut solar costs to $1 per watt

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Sixty-nine projects were awarded more than $145 million in government cash with one goal in mind: bring the total cost of utility-scale solar down to $1 a watt by 2020.

The Energy Department has injected more than $145 million into 69 advanced technology projects as part of its SunShot Initiative with one goal in mind: bring the total cost of utility-scale solar down about 75 percent to $1 a watt by the end of the decade.

To get there, the DOE is putting cash into companies, national labs and universities that are working on high risk, high reward concepts and technologies that will transform how solar energy is generated, stored and used. In other words, this is not a bet on conventional tech.

Dow Chemical and Solexel and Owens Corning, which are both working on so-called building-integrated photovoltaic projects, landed the two largest cash awards at  $12.8 million and $13 million respectively.  As Smart Planet editor-in-chief Larry Dignan noted in a separate post on Dow, building integrated solar (BIPV) aims to build solar functionality directly into building materials instead of installing panels as add-ons.

Solexel is developing a roofing shingle and accessories for sloped roofs. Dow is working integrating solar shingles as well and plans to launch a product later this year. Other big players, namely universities and the R&D divisions of companies like GE, also were awarded advanced solar tech funds.  Here's the complete list of the SunShot winners (PDF).

A few other standouts include concentrating solar PV company Amonix, which received $4.5 million to develop a new dual axis tracking system; and Carlise Construction Materials, which will get $4.6 million for building-integrated PV solar cells on roofing membranes. Several awards went to projects  to improve performance of CIGS (copper indium gallium selenide) solar cells -- the same materials used by the recently failed solar startup Solyndra.

The SunShot program is inspired by President Kennedy's 1960s 'moon shot' goal, which laid out a plan for the U.S. to regain a lead in the space race. The program, which launched in February, has already awarded millions of dollars for specific SunShot goals:

  • $27 million to nine new projects to develop the U.S. supply chains for photovoltaic manufacturing
  • a $7 million investment via the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to fund a PV incubator program
  • $50 million for the SUNPATH program (scaling up nascent PV at home);
  • $110 million to three industry and academic consortia to enable substantial cost reductions in PV module production.

This latest round of funding through the DOE's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy is directed towards projects that aim to lower costs of materials and manufacturing processes and increase efficiency. In short, the kind of tech that will bring the cost of solar electricity down to about $0.06 per kilowatt hour, a price that would allow it to compete with fossil fuels.

The awards were broken down into six bureaucratic-sounding categories. Here's the gist of it:

  • Nine projects will receive $42 million for R&D to improve/lower cot of solar system components including power inverters and mounting racks (panels and cells not included);
  • 18 projects will receive $35.8 million for research to advance cell efficiency;
  • Eight projects to receive $25.9 million to develop electronics and smarter, more interactive systems that will better integrate into the grid;
  • 23 projects to receive $22.2 million for applied research into "transformational" tech that greatly increases efficiency, lower costs and builds the supply chain;
  • Seven projects to receive $13.6 million to develop way to reduce the cost of software and databases used by local jurisdictions and installers;
  • Four SunShot incubator projects to receive $5.8 million to either bring a concept to commercial viability faster or to shorten the timeline between lab development and piloting a product.

Photo: Sandia National Laboratories

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Kirsten Korosec

Contributing Editor

Kirsten Korosec has written for Technology Review, Marketing News, The Hill, BNET and Bloomberg News. She holds a degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is based in Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure