Big Solar and US team up to slash cost

A total of $7.5 million of research grants has been allocated to pushing down the cost of utility-scale solar in the U.S.

The grant is being given to the Bay Area Photovoltaic Consortium (BAPVC), an industry-supported program led by Stanford University and UC Berkeley.

Set up last year by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the consortium is a key part of the DOE SunShot Initiative to reduce the installed price of large-scale photovoltaic (PV) systems from $3 per watt to $1 per watt without government subsidies. The deadline for the price drop is 2020.

A partnership between universities and business, the BAPVC is not focused on one single aspect of solar but, among other things, will invest in efforts to improve solar cell reliability and develop novel transparent electrodes and low-cost solar absorbers.

“Our goal is to develop low-cost solar cells that can go into production within the decade,” John Benner, BAPVC executive director said in a statement. “We’re looking to develop improvements to existing technologies that industry can implement very quickly. That’s the beauty of these awards.”

At present, less than 1 percent of power generated in the U.S. comes from solar. However, reducing the cost to $1 per watt would put solar energy on a par with the cost of producing electricity from coal-powered plants.

In a utility-scale PV system the solar module accounts for about half of the cost. According to BAPVC, the cost of the module would have to go down to 50 cents per watt by 2020 to meet the DOE’s requirements.

In solar modules the components are arranged in layers. These layers include antireflection coatings, transparent electrodes, absorbers and an outer layer to protect the other components. The research teams will focus on developing new materials and processes to drive down the cost of each component.

The DOE funding will be given to a total of 18 research teams at BAPVC partner institutions Stanford, UC Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

However, the project is not confined to academic institutions. Around 24 corporations are part of the consortium, and 11 companies – including GE, DuPont, HelioVolt and Corning – have contributed more than $500,000 in annual fees to support the university-led research.

Benner added: “The most direct way to reduce cost is to double the efficiency. We’re aiming at technologies that will increase the efficiency of thin-film modules from 12 percent, where they are today, to 20 percent within five years.”

A number of research teams are working on finding these efficiencies through nanotechnologies that could improve the absorption and trapping of sunlight. Another research team at UC-Berkeley has been developing high-voltage solar cell absorbers that they claim have an improved efficiency of 34 percent.

BAPVC was first established in April 2011 with a five-year, $25 million award from the DOE.

Paul Willis, EarthTechling