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Public Sector Clean Energy Innovation at Work: Thin-Film Solar

Thin Film Flexible Solar PV Installation 2

This week, the U.S. clean energy sector received a welcomed boost towards making advanced clean technology a commercial reality. General Electric (GE) announced that it plans to build the largest solar manufacturing facility in the United States to produce cheap, efficient thin-film solar panels.  This development is noteworthy due to its scale and economic benefits, but also because government support for clean energy innovation was the main driver for its success.

The path leading to the largest advanced solar manufacturing facility in the United States is an excellent example of turning publically funded R&D into a cheap, commercial technology.  The technology in question is a type of advanced thin-film solar panels – solar panels that are flexible and can fit onto most surfaces (instead of being confined to a bulkier housing).  What’s special about GEs technology is that the solar cells are produced using a cadmium-telluride compound instead of traditional silicon.  There is some sunlight-to-energy efficiency loss (silicon panels get between 15% – 20% and GEs panels get almost 13%), but it has one key advantage – it’s a cheaper material. Given the scale of GE’s proposed manufacturing facility (estimated at producing 400 megawatts of solar panels) it’s expected final cost to be less than $1 per watt, or the goal the DOE Secretary Chu has set to achieve.  And this possible breakthrough in the cost of solar energy is thanks to years of development and investment by the federal government.

The source – the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) Thin-Film Photovoltaic Partnership Program.  The government program is an open and dynamic public-private partnership among federal lab researchers at NREL, university researchers, and private sector solar manufacturers.  The program works like this: NREL creates focused research areas on current, emerging, or proposed solar photovoltaic technologies and conducts R&D aimed at innovating solutions that drive down its cost.  The research teams for each of these areas – such as cadmium-telluride photovoltaics – do this by supporting solar innovation from beginning to end of development.  First, they work with universities and innovative small businesses to conduct RD&D using government funds to solve fundamental issues and demonstrate new technologies.  Second, they partner with emerging solar companies to help bridge the valleys of death and facilitate the deployment of new solar technologies from lab to mass deployment.  The program has been so successful that it has received numerous private sector accolades from the likes of Boeing, BP, and Siemens to name a few, for developing innovative new technologies.

And the thin-film technology – a spin-off of a program research project.  A group of researchers decided that they wanted to commercialize thin-film technology and spin-off a new company.  After securing nearly $3.2 million in private sector financing, PrimeStar was formed.  Later global financial giant Deutsche Bank invested another $4 million.  And then in 2007, GE became a shareholder, eventually become a majority investor by 2008.  Last week, GE doubled down and purchased the remainder of the company and announced their intention of building the manufacturing plant.

Thin film solar, so far, is a great success story for public clean energy investment and showcases the key role government plays in spurring innovation.  Without vital programs like those at NREL, critical clean technologies may never make it out of the laboratory and into public use. 

And as the clean energy debate continues through 2011, I present a word of caution: breakthroughs such as this are just the beginning of what’s needed.  Thin-film solar is a great advancement and is a key innovation that is making solar energy cheap, but it still has critical weaknesses such as its reliance on tellurium – a rare earth material that the United States largely imports, similar to silicon, that leave thin-film solar panels open to price volatility of supply shrinks.  Programs within DOE are working on advanced material research and advanced solar research that aims to solve problems like this.  The moral of the story is this – public clean energy innovation programs like NREL are part of a larger innovation system and feed off of each other’s successes.  Innovation requires such a robust system for more breakthroughs like GE’s thin-film solar technology to become a reality.

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