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

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Courtesy PV Magazine

President Trump’s unflagging support for fossil fuels has not stopped the DOE from putting millions of dollars into innovative technologies that could open new paths for market growth in the U.S. solar industry.

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.

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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.

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.”

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