Feds pay out $30 million for more efficient solar

ARPA-E, the federal program that backs revolutionary energy research and that even Mitt Romney supported during the 2012 campaign, emerged with about $100 million less than the Obama administration wanted when the fiscal year 2014 budget was finally put to bed [PDF].

But that still left the program with about $280 million to invest, and on Thursday, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz aimed up to $30 million at a dozen outside-the-PV-box solar R&D projects.

“The ARPA-E projects announced today are exactly the type of innovative technologies we need to keep breaking through barriers – advancing lower cost, highly efficient solar power,” the secretary said in Austin, Texas.

image via ARPA-E

ARPA-E’s general charge is to back transformational research, as opposed to the incremental sort the administration is supporting in solar with its SunShot Initiative. With the new awards in the Full-Spectrum Optimized Conversion and Utilization of Sunlight program – known as FOCUS – there’s a real emphasis on hybrid systems that can allow for greater use of the sun’s energy – in some cases, even when the sun isn’t shining.

For example, here’s a description of the project that Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems is in line to get nearly $2.4 million to pursue:

Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems will develop a dish-shaped hybrid solar converter that combines a high-efficiency solar cell with a thermo-acoustic engine that converts heat into electricity. The thermo-acoustic unit, which was originally designed for space missions, converts waste heat from the solar cell into sound waves that generate electricity using few moving parts. The engine and solar cell are surrounded by salts that store heat as needed by melting when the sun shines and releases the heat to make electricity by solidifying when the sun is not shinning. This combination could lead to inexpensive, on-demand electricity from solar energy.

MIT was tabbed for a $3.4 grant for its own hybrid vision:

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology will develop a hybrid solar converter that integrates a thermal absorber and a solar cell into a layered stack. The design allows focused sunlight to heat fluid piped through layers of optically transparent thermal insulation. The part of the spectrum most easily converted to electricity filters through to the solar cells. This unique stack design would enable low-cost solar energy conversion systems that can flexibly dispatch electricity when most needed.

None of these projects (a PDF describing all of them is here) is expected to emerge from the ARPA-E process with a product ready to take to the commercial market. Instead, the idea is to get prototypes built that will encourage venture capitalists to jump in with the really big money that’s needed to develop actual products. ARPA-E last year released a long list of projects [PDF] that have drawn the interest of VC – reportedly to the tune of $450 million. Flow battery company Primus Power, the focus of a recent Gigaom article, is an example of how that can unfold. Still, there are those who wonder wonder if ARPA-E can really make a difference, given the huge costs and long time frames of scaling up and demonstrating new energy technologies.

* Pete Danko, EarthTechling