Obama Sets Up Cost Of US Solar Energy For Another Freefall

Solar energy is already cost competitive with conventional fuels in 14 US states, and that’s pretty amazing considering that the bottom has dropped out from under the coal, natural gas, and petroleum markets. Well, the other 36 states better brace themselves because here comes more than $102 million in US Energy Department funding for new projects to make solar energy even cheaper.

The new solar energy funding was announced yesterday along with a new Energy Department energy efficiency roadmap that aims to double — yes, double — energy efficiency in the US by 2030 through standards for utilities, vehicles, and consumer goods.

Troubleshooting Solar Energy Technology

Of the total pile, about $7 million will go to six projects designed to improve solar system performance and gain a better understanding of how solar modules degrade, under the Energy Department’s existing PREDICTS initiative.

In its first round, PREDICTS awardees modeled microinverters and concentrating solar systems as well as photovoltaic (PV) systems. The new round will focus on accelerating the testing of PV systems, the ultimate goal being to more accurately assess lifespan and reduce financial risk.

The awardees are the Electric Power Research Institute, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, SunPower Corporation, Case Western Reserve University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Underwriters Laboratories.

Energy Dept Still Hearts CSP

CSP: APOLLO, the Energy Department’s concentrating solar power initiative, will get a $32 million chunk of the total. This round of funding carries on work from the agency’s ongoing CSP program, aimed improving CSP performance throughout the system.

The work so far has been so successful that the cost of CSP hardware is now less than the cost of operating and maintaining a CSP system over its lifespan, so this new round of funding includes a package of projects focused on operating and maintenance costs. Here’s the breakdown from the Energy Department:

Abengoa Solar, LLC has two projects in the works. One will optimize the use of molten salt in the collector field, with the aim of developing a more efficient “next-generation” collector. The other project involves a new receiver design that includes a new strategy for heat pipes (yes, this Abengoa).

Boston University will work on self-cleaning solar technology with heliostat mirrors and parabolic troughs in large-scale solar plants, including scalable, low-cost manufacturing methods (for those of you new to the topic, CSP plants use special flat mirrors called heliostats to focus sunlight on a central receiver in a tower, or they use mirror-like troughs, all to heat a liquid that can run a steam turbine).

Oregon State University is continuing its work on solar receiver that uses supercritical CO2 for heat transfer (supercritical refers to CO2 in a liquid state). This technology is not commercially viable yet, but if and when it breaks into the market you’ll see a “radical reduction” in the size of the receiver.

SolarReserve LLC will work on receiver improvements that can handle much higher temperatures than conventional receivers.

Dartmouth College is tasked with a nanoparticle coating that will also enable CSP systems to operate at higher temperatures, with the aim of achieving thermal of more than 90% at 700°C.

Argonne National Laboratory has a graphite foam in the works that will improve latent heat thermal energy storage. The overall goal is compatibility with the aforementioned supercritical CO2.

Purdue University is looking to create high-temerature heat exchangers, also with the aim of supercritical CO2 compatibility.

Southern Research Institute has paired up with Precision Combustion, Inc. the Electric Power Research Institute, Clariant, Inc., and Southern Company to adapt its high temperature, calcium-based thermochemical storage system for CSP systems.

Brayton Energy is also working on sCO2 compatibility, with a high-density thermal energy storage arrangement that can be mounted near the top of a CSP tower. The idea is to eliminate extra pipes and connections.

Southwest Research Institute has teamed with Samsung Techwin to do this:

…develop an integrally-geared compressor-expander (compander) and a novel centrifugal compressor impeller design for use in 10 MW scale CSP applications utilizing a supercritical CO2 (sCO2) cycle. This integrally-geared compander has the potential to improve efficiency, modularity, and process control over other proposed CSP turbomachinery configurations utilizing a sCO2 power cycle.

Got that?

General Electric — GE Global Research are developing a new compression system for sCO2.

Ceramatec, Inc. and the Georgia Institute of Technology have a new power block in the works that is much more efficient than conventional thermoelectric generators. The secret sauce, patented by Ceramatec, is a pair of highly conductive electrolytes.

The University of Wisconsin is also working on compatibility improvements to the sCO2 cycle, with a company called FlowServe. The team will use a test bed at Sandia National Laboratory.

Solar Energy, Coming Soon To Somewhere Near You

The Energy Department is also ramping up its SPARC program for recognizing best practices models for solar energy adoption by local communities. Two organizations will divvy up about $13 million in this category.

The International City/County Management Association will create a competitive — friendly style, that is — national program with a focus on solar energy workforce building to speed up solar adoption in communities.

The Solar Foundation will be providing technical assistance to communities interested in attaining SPARC (Solar Powering America by Recognizing Communities) status.

More And Better PV Modules On The Way

A full half of the entire pot — $50 million — will go to new funding opportunities designed to ramp up PV efficiency and bring new technology to market faster. The aim is to push solar energy far beyond the Energy Department’s original SunShot goal of competitiveness with fossil fuels, and beat them on cost in many more markets.

Image via US Department of Energy. 
Article by Tina Casey for CleanTechnica.com