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The university-industry consortium led by Stanford and UC-Berkeley aims to make utility-scale solar energy cost-competitive by 2020.
By Mark Shwartz
The Bay Area Photovoltaic Consortium (BAPVC) – an industry-supported program led by Stanford University and the University of California-Berkeley – has announced its first research grants aimed at making utility-scale solar power cost-competitive by the end of the decade.
A total of $7.5 million will be given to 18 research teams at BAPVC partner institutions Stanford, UC-Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
The three-year grants will be used to develop new technologies that significantly reduce the cost of photovoltaic modules and make large-scale solar technology cheaper for electric utilities by 2020.
"Our goal is to develop low-cost solar cells that can go into production within the decade," said John Benner, BAPVC executive director. "We're looking to develop improvements to existing technologies that industry can implement very quickly. That's the beauty of these awards."
Established in April 2011 with a five-year, $25 million award from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the consortium brings together industry and academic experts to identify critical challenges in photovoltaic manufacturing.
More than two-dozen corporations participate in the consortium. Eleven companies – including GE, DuPont, HelioVolt and Corning – have enrolled as industry members, contributing a combined total of more than $500,000 in annual fees to support university-led research. "The consortium is open to engaging with other corporations and research institutions as well," Benner said.
Member companies play a key role in establishing the overall research agenda, from improving solar cell reliability to developing novel transparent electrodes and low-cost solar absorbers. Members also help review and recommend research proposals with the strongest technical merits and commercial potential.
"We're not only funding university research," said BAPVC co-director Yi Cui, an associate professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford, and of photon science at SLAC. "We have created an environment where universities and industry from across the country can communicate. It's really a national consortium."
The BAPVC is a key part of the DOE SunShot Initiative to reduce the installed price of large-scale photovoltaic systems from $3 per watt to $1 per watt by 2020 without government subsidies.
Today, less than 1 percent of the electricity generated in the United States comes from solar power. But at $1 per watt, solar-generated electricity would be comparable in cost to electricity produced from coal-powered power plants.
That would give utilities a strong economic incentive to begin installing photovoltaic systems across the country, which in turn would dramatically increase the percentage of solar-generated power in the United States, according to DOE projections.
In a utility-scale photovoltaic system, about half of the installed cost goes into permits, power electronics, mounting hardware and other on-site construction costs. The solar module itself accounts for about half of the cost.
"To achieve the DOE's aggressive price reduction of $1 per watt by 2020, the module cost will have to go below 50¢ per watt," Cui said. "That is the goal of the consortium."
To address the DOE's price-cutting challenge, the consortium has adopted a whole-module approach to its research effort.
"Innovation will be required in every component of a solar cell module in order to achieve a price of 50¢ per watt," said BAPVC co-director Ali Javey, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences at UC-Berkeley. "While the solutions may be revolutionary, they must also be timely. We're looking for innovative technologies that can be transferred from the laboratory to industry in three to five years, and into full-scale production by 2020."
Solar modules consist of layered components, including antireflection coatings, transparent electrodes, absorbers and an encapsulant. The 18 BAPVC grant recipients will focus on developing new materials and processes that improve efficiency and drive down the manufacturing cost of each component.
"The most direct way to reduce cost is to double the efficiency," Benner said. "We're aiming at technologies that will increase the efficiency of thin-film modules from 12 percent, where they are today, to 20 percent within five years."
One research team, led by Eli Yablonovitch, a professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences at UC-Berkeley, is developing high-voltage solar cell absorbers with an efficiency of 34 percent.
Several researchers are testing nanotechnologies that could improve the absorption and trapping of sunlight. For example, Mark Brongersma, an associate professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford, is developing new nanofabrication techniques that would make metallic electrodes virtually invisible to incoming light.
"Light management is very important," Benner said. "If you can do that well, you can make the devices 10 times thinner than they are today. Ten times thinner means that the manufacturing throughput could operate 10 times faster and consume 10 times less material, so it's a win-win on the cost side as well."
Researchers are also looking for ways to improve the encapsulation system – the glass and polymer sheets that protect the solar cell from the environment. The consortium is funding a research team from LBNL, SLAC, UC-Berkeley and Stanford to create superior and lower-cost barrier layers made of a novel polymer-nanocrystal composite.
Mark Shwartz is a communications/energy writer at the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford University.
This article originally appeared in the Stanford Report.