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Public Sector Clean Energy Innovation at Work: High Efficiency Solar Energy

This is the second in a series of short posts describing emerging domestic clean technology businesses born out of the United States public-private based innovation system.  The goal is to understand where U.S. clean technologies come from, what policies best supported them, and understand potential weaknesses in the U.S. energy innovation system.  The first in the series – on thin-film solar – can be found here.

One of the many emerging clean technology success stories in the United States is Suniva, a high efficiency solar manufacturing company based in Georgia.  Their emergence is noteworthy for two reasons: its use of breakthrough innovations used by the information technology sector and its support from and partnership with the public sector.

Suniva’s history started at the Georgia Tech University Center of Excellence for Photovoltaics Research and Education (UCEP), a Department of Energy funded project under EEREs Solar Energy Technologies Program.  UCEPs goal is to conduct RD&D that increases the efficiency of silicon-based solar cells.  But the project is unique in that it doesn’t just stop at exploratory research.  Instead it bridges the basic science and engineering knowledge-base of Georgia Tech with manufacturing processes through small scale demonstration projects and industry partnerships.  As quoted on Suniva’s website, it’s an “excellent example of how a successful public/private partnership can create and commercialize world-class technology [authors emphasis].” 

One of the projects key innovations was the successful use of a silicon-processing technique called ion implantation – a process that revolutionized the semiconductor industry and played a significant role in driving Moore’s Law – that produces high efficiency silicon cells at low cost.  For decades, ion implantation was thought to yield too little solar cells at too high a cost , but it offered the possibility of significantly reducing the number of silicon cell processing steps, thus reducing manufacturing costs if optimally implemented.  UCEP Director and founder of Suniva Ajeet Rohatgi’s and his team took this idea and continued to refine the implantation process until it was capable of mass manufacturing.  So, after years of R&D and DOE support, it finally worked.  Rohatgi then started Suniva in collaboration with Varian Semiconductor Equipment Associates to utilize their expertise in ion implantation equipment.  As a result, Suniva is producing silicon-based cells capable of at least 19 percent efficiency (a measure of converting solar energy into electricity).  This places the company in the top tier of high-efficiency silicon solar cell manufacturers at a cost that is comparable to the cheapest solar panels manufactured abroad. 

While Suniva is a great example of the public-private energy innovation system at work, it also informs the clean energy policy debate by pointing out a potential weakness – public support for deploying innovative clean technologies in the United States.  One of the key programs DOE offers emerging clean tech companies is a loan guarantee program.  Its goal is simple – DOE agrees to repay a clean tech companies debt obligation if the company defaults.  This guarantee helps eligible clean technology companies receive financing from banks to build manufacturing and production facilities.  Thus far, the program has had many successes including guaranteeing up to $30 billion in loans to clean tech companies in 2010 alone that allowed 14 clean energy businesses to expand in the United States and create a DOE estimated 61,000 jobs.  But the program has had some missteps as discussed in a recent series of GAO audits and reports (though overall GAO does state the program is improving), including uneven application evaluation practices and a lack of feedback from DOE to applicants to ensure a more open process (the most recent report can be found here).

Suniva aimed to secure a DOE loan guarantee so it could finance the construction of a new manufacturing facility in Michigan.  But because of issues at the loan guarantee program that significantly prolonged the loan process, Suniva had to back out.  Fortunately, many of Suniva’s original financial backers decided to double up on the company in a new round of fundraising that may allow Suniva to proceed with its expansion (though possibly a new location).

Suniva demonstrates that public-private partnerships in clean energy innovation can have significant and positive results in spurring a U.S. clean tech industry.  It also shows the strength of government picking a broad technology category, like increasing the efficiency of solar technologies, and leveraging the science and engineering expertise of the university system to solve development barriers.  The United States needs a new clean energy policy to fill in the gaps and weaknesses of the innovation system, such as the deployment and financing stage of development and enable more Suniva’s to flourish.  One such policy – the Clean Energy Deployment Administration (CEDA) – has received bipartisan support and would incorporate and strengthen the current loan guarantee program at DOE.

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