Federal grants aim to spark investment in U.S. solar manufacturing


Seven solar manufacturing start-up firms have each received $1 million to develop a “robust prototype” that they could use as a calling card in seeking private investment.

The manufacturing processes the firms are pursuing include two thin-film technologies, silicon wafer splitting, improved metal paste, solar glass coating, a household breaker panel with inverter, and a field factory.

The grants are among 75 grants totaling $128 million that the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) has awarded, toward a long-term goal of reducing costs to 3 cents per kWh for utility-scale PV, 4 cents for commercial/industrial PV, and 5 cents for residential PV.

Twenty-one grants awarded for PV research and development are also covered in this story; SETO also made grants for balance-of-systems, systems integration, and concentrating solar.


Innovations in manufacturing

The seven entrepreneur-stage manufacturing companies are located in Washington, California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Michigan. To earn a DOE grant, each firm provided a cost-share ranging from $300,000 to $1 million.

As a means to manufacture perovskite cells, Bluedot Photonics is developing single-source vapor deposition hardware in which a powder is converted directly to vapor and coated onto a substrate, the base of a solar cell.

To speed production of silicon carbide wafers for power electronics, Halo Industries will deliver a technology that mechanically fractures wafers off blocks of silicon carbide without wasting material.

Osazda Energy will develop an improved screen-printable metal paste, which strengthens metal connections in a solar cell, and test it in concert with Sandia National Laboratories.

A tool that takes transparent conductive oxide, and rapidly deposits it onto heterojunction silicon with intrinsic thin layer (HIT) solar cells, will be developed by Scion Plasma.

Hardware for solar-plus-storage systems, that integrates a hybrid inverter into a breaker panel, will be developed by Span.io.

Swift Coat will make and scale anti-reflective and anti-soiling coatings for solar glass, deposited onto the glass by spraying dry nanoparticles, and test coated glass in concert with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Terabase Energy will create a field factory that delivers PV power plants and reduces soft costs.


PV research and development

SETO’s PV research and development grants support projects that will help reduce PV costs, increase PV performance, and improve reliability.

SETO made seven grants for PV research collaborations, ranging from $1.8 million to $4.5 million, with each grant having a cost-share requirement.  Universities are leading four of the collaborations:

  • Proving the viability of a sonic wafering process to remove gallium arsenide solar cells from the top surface of a thick wafer to reuse III-V substrates (materials from groups III and V of the periodic table): $2.5 million to Arizona State University
  • Developing a test foundry that U.S. companies may use to prove the viability of new PV technologies, focusing on post-passivated emitter rear contact cell and module technologies: $1.8 million to Arizona State University
  • Identifying the best materials to use to make high-quality passivated rear contacts for thin-film cadmium-telluride (CdTe) solar cells: $3.5 million to Colorado State University
  • Using machine learning and developing algorithms to automate maintenance decisions at utility-scale PV plants: $2 million to Electric Power Research Institute
  • Developing new methods for roll-to-roll printing of bifacial thin-film PV modules: $4 million to Energy Materials Corporation
  • Improving a floating-silicon method for producing continuous thin silicon ribbons that are then cut into wafers: $2.5 million to Leading Edge Crystal Technologies
  • Developing high-efficiency thin-film perovskite mini-modules and investigating deposition techniques: $4.5 million to the University of Toledo.

SETO also made 14 grants of $200,000, each with a cost-share of $50,000, for small innovative research and development projects that are “intended to provide a foothold for new technologies or areas of study”:

  • Module lamination research
  • Polymeric hole transport materials for perovskite
  • Research into light- and elevated temperature-induced degradation of p-type passivated emitter rear contact (PERC) silicon PV cells
  • Tools and methods to measure charge carrier movement in copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) PV cells
  • PV plant designs to enable dispatchable solar
  • Co-locating PV and pasture-raised rabbits
  • Sealants to reduce lead leakage from broken perovskite modules
  • Using artificial intelligence in PV system inverters to provide dispatchable power
  • Research on causes of PV cell defects
  • Lower-cost printing of silver contacts on silicon PV cells
  • Research into reusing the base (substrate) of the solar cell
  • Developing and researching a CdTe PERC solar cell
  • Research into perovskite PV cell degradation
  • Research into producing pure silicon from quartzite.

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