DOE launches “The Solar Prize” to spur U.S. solar manufacturing

Could the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) actually be trying to spur solar manufacturing in the United States, something President Donald J. Trump and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer say the tariff decision earlier this week will do?

The answer is a definite maybe.

Through a partnership with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the DOE has launched the American-Made Solar Prize, which it says is designed to spur innovations in the solar industry by bringing the public into the equation.

In the Solar Prize process, the public would submit ideas they believe will advance the solar industry as well as vote on which ideas they would like to see move forward.

Then the DOE and NREL would form teams of researchers to develop solutions and connect them to a network of industry experts, developers, fabricators, incubators and potential investors to accelerate product development.

According to the announcement, the goal would be to prototype the ideas and prove their viability to the private sector, in the hopes of getting investors to scale the successful technologies.

Though the website for the prize mentions prize money that will be awarded to the winning teams, there are no specifics of amounts or what parameters would qualify projects for support.

 To most solar veterans, this program appears to duplicate at least some of the goals of the Sunshot Initiative, which is still (as of this writing) providing seed money for early-stage solar technological development.

The announcement of the Solar Prize comes the same week that Trump imposed four years of graduated tariffs on imported solar cells and modules, starting at 30% and ending at 15% in 2022. The announcement also exempts the first 2.5 GW of solar cells from the tariffs, meaning domestic module manufacturers will still have enough inventory to produce their products.

In addition, there is the potential for some products to be exempted from the tariffs, but manufacturers must apply for these exemptions, and there is no guarantee that they will get them after a lengthy review.

Analysts who pv magazine has spoken with note that there is still not much of a business case for U.S. solar manufacturing, even with the tariffs, however there have been a few announcements of expansions of existing production and potential new factories nonetheless.

Modules and cells entering the country on or after 12:01 a.m. on February 7 will be subject to the new tariffs.