Chips, commercial CSP and a solar river: What the DOE is doing with its solar innovation dollars


Eric Cummings is out to disrupt the residential solar and storage market with a $1,000 synchronous condenser — essentially a small generator with a flywheel attached — that can keep rooftop panels pumping out power when the grid goes down.

“The generator produces a substantial current to maintain voltage, basically performing the role of the power grid — inertia,” said Cummings, CEO of Maxout Renewables. “It feeds a signal into the inverter to let the inverter know that there is now a grid — or microgrid. The inverter starts feeding power (back into the system), and our device manages the power.”

Despite President Donald Trump’s unflagging support for fossil fuels, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)  is managing to remain a force for disruptive innovation in the renewable energy space — and it’s putting significant money into the effort. Cummings and his California-based startup are one of ten finalists recently named for the DOE’s American-Made Solar Prize, a competition aimed at boosting U.S. solar manufacturing.

For the American-Made competition, each finalist receives $100,000 in cash, plus a $75,000 voucher good for research and testing at one of DOE’s national labs. Two winners, to be announced later this year, will each receive an additional $500,000 and another $75,000 lab voucher, to help bring their new products to market.

Following that announcement, the agency also rolled out a list of eleven solar firms which will receive million-dollar grants to help drive innovation in the industry as part of its Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) program.

The SBIR is an ongoing program that also puts federal dollars into advancing research on fossil fuels and nuclear, as well as renewables. For this round, the solar awardees are splitting $12.3 million in funding, with a median award of $1.1 million spread over two years, according to the DOE announcement.

A quick rundown of several of the awardees showcases some very cool technology, while also staking out new opportunities for cost cutting and market growth across the industry.

Optimization built in

Two of the American-Made finalists are developing chips and circuits that can be built into solar panels to make them run more efficiently and help cut costs. Located in Virginia, Enertronics is targeting traditional inverter technology with a “paralleled power optimizer” circuit that can be installed in a panel’s junction box and converts the low-voltage direct current (DC) generated by PV panels into high-voltage DC.

What this means is that inverters would not need to be designed to handle as wide a range of voltages, said company founder Jason Lai, which in turn could reduce inverter size and costs, while achieving super-high power conversion efficiency. Lai is shooting for 99%, he said.

Uplift Solar in Las Vegas is developing a chip that, according to chief operating officer Lauren Rosenblatt, is a virtual Swiss Army knife of optimizers. Besides upping the productivity of panels that are shaded or partially covered with snow, it can also allow for rapid shut-down of a panel and has a GPS function that can be used in off-grid applications. An accompanying phone app lets an installer know panels are on and connected even before they officially come online.

Plus, the chip can be built into any PV panel, except for thin film, Rosenblatt said.

“Solar is more sophisticated than it used to be,” she said. “It’s no longer about making the solar energy as cheap as possible. It’s about making it cost effective in a growing number of specialized applications.”

Alternatives to lithium-ion 

The SBIR awardees include some intriguing advances in solar technology and applications, such as Norwich Solar Technologies’ behind-the-meter, commercial-scale concentrating solar power (CSP) with water-based thermal storage. The Vermont company is known primarily as a commercial PV installer, but its roots are in looking at next-generation CSP and storage, said co-founder Troy McBride.

He believes scaling CSP down to distributed, commercial-sized projects — 500 kW to 10 MW — could provide the economies of scale needed to make it competitive with PV. Adding thermal storage could offer up to 15 hours of backup or night-time power, circumventing the duration issues of lithium-ion batteries. With the SBIR money, Norwich is developing a hybrid project — PV, CSP and storage — that could run 24-7, he said.

“Our primary customer is in the Sun Belt, that has relatively high retail electric costs,” he said. “Being behind the meter, we can offset that higher retail electricity with lower-cost, self-generated electricity. They remain connected to the grid but get increased reliability and resilience.”

According to Eric Cummings, the drivers for Maxout’s synchronous condenser were the rolling, preventative power outages in California during the disastrous wildfires of the past few years. But, he said, beyond reliability and resilience, a major benefit of the system is that it can provide “surge power” — the extra power needed, for example, when air conditioners cycle on and off during the day.

“You don’t need to oversize your (solar) system for the peak load; you can size it for what you actually use,” he said.

If he can deliver on the $1,000 price point, Cummings sees the condenser as a no-brainer add-on for homeowners going solar, who might balk at the high upfront cost of battery storage.

The agricultural market

Innovation in the agricultural market is emerging as a significant growth opportunity for the industry — which is where Tectonicus Constructs, and its SBIR grant come in.

Principal Ben Lepley was teaching architecture at the University of Arizona — and running Tectonicus, a customized design firm —  when he started thinking seriously about climate change and tripped over an article about a solar-covered canal in India. Central Arizona has a major canal — 336 miles — providing water to Phoenix and Tucson, and the Solar River project was born.

The SBIR grant will allow Lepley to build a prototype of his canal-covering system, which, he said, draws on lessons learned from solar carports and floating solar. The system could provide multiple benefits to farmers and water districts, for example, by cutting costs for water pumping and reducing water contamination to help keep agricultural land healthy and in production.

Lepley points out the U.S. has 110,000 miles of canals. Echoing Rosenblatt, he said, “The benefits of the system are not going to be the dollars per watt. The benefits will in preventing water evaporation, will be preventing urban sprawl, keeping rural jobs in the community and keeping water-pumping prices stable for the life of the panels.”

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