Trump Administration Looks to Spur Next-Gen, US Solar Manufacturing with American-Made Solar Prize

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The US Dept. of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy earlier this month launched a three-stage, USD3 million prize competition in a bid to spur innovation and development of next-generation solar energy manufacturing. Participating in three successive prize contests over the course of about one year, competitors will need to “identify an ‘impactful’ solution that addresses critical challenges related to American solar competitiveness, create a proof of concept and secure a committed partner to test a prototype,” EERE explains.

The field of competitors will narrow and the amount of cash prizes escalate as the competition progresses, from as much as USD50,000 per prize winner in stage one to as much as $200,000 per prize winner in stage two and $500,000 per prize winner in stage three. The stage one application window closes Oct. 5. Winning applicants will participate in “demo” days, during which they will pitch their ideas to a panel of expert reviewers. The judges will evaluate competitors’ conceptual designs based on the quality of their solutions and the progress made during the contest period.

American-Made Solar Prize Framework
American-Made Solar Prize framework. Click here to view the full-size image. | Credit: US Dept. of Energy

Similar to other DOE and EERE programs, the American-Made Solar Prize opens up opportunities for those developing innovative solutions to join with federal research and development institutions and leverage their expertise and resources in seeking to further develop, refine, test and prove their ideas and conceptual designs. The openness of the competition – individuals as well as public and private sector organizations can apply – and the focus on forging a nationwide community of innovators with the aim of establishing the US as a leader in next-gen solar manufacturing distinguish American-Made Solar, however, Daniel Simmons, EERE principal deputy assistant secretary, explained in an interview.

The American-Made Solar Prize competition

The Trump administration’s recent imposition of a global tariff on imports of solar photovoltaic cells and modules highlights the loss of solar manufacturing competitiveness in the US, Simmons explained in an interview. “There’s a long supply chain associated with solar PV – from production of polysilicon and manufacturing of PV cells and modules to assembly and ultimately to installation. We do not have a key piece – the manufacturing of solar cells and modules –  so we’re looking to the future and thinking about next-generation technology and what we, as the DOE, can do to see more of that manufacturing in the US,” he said.

Three million dollars may seem a very modest amount to allocate to a program with such high aspirations. EERE is looking to generate out-sized returns from the investment, however. “The purpose is to spur innovation and enhance competitiveness. We don’t have an additional USD $100 million to invest in the program, but we believe it is a good idea and makes a lot of sense, so we launched the program with what we have available.”

This is really about bringing people together and for competitors to identify and resolve critical challenges related to American solar competitiveness, to create a proof-of-concept and third, to secure a committed partner to test their prototypes.

The amount of capital allocated to the program is definitely scalable upwards should it prove successful, Simmons added.

American-Made Solar also offers EERE and the Dept. of Energy an opportunity to reach out broadly across the US and test the effectiveness of a novel public-private partnership mechanism and program structure. “Given how the prize is set up, we believe we can a make a significant impact,” Simmons said.

Forging a community centered on strengthening US solar manufacturing

The US National Renewable Energy Laboratory will administer the American-Made Solar prize competition. That extends to acting as program liaison to reach out to and engage with prospective participants and coordinating with other Dept. of Energy national labs and a broad-based network of institutions to support the program, explained Garrett Nilsen, program manager of the EERE Solar Energy Technology Office’s “Technology to Market” team.

The Dept. of Energy previously carried out the WAVE Energy Prize competition, which has proved very successful in establishing a public-private partnership that has spurred research and development of ocean wave energy conversion technologies, Simmons pointed out.

This [American-Made Solar Prize] is more about bringing together a community as opposed to realizing any specific technical targets. We definitely expect and hope to see some significant technical achievements made, but this more in the way of leveraging DOE’s resources and taking a public-private partnership approach in order to foster broad-based collaboration to meet a significant industry challenge.

What in the way of promising next-gen solar manufacturing innovations does EERE see on the horizon at the moment? “Innovations that improve the efficiency of solar PV cell and module manufacturing are always valuable,” said Nilsen.

“There are opportunities that would hopefully eliminate some steps in manufacturing of PV cells and modules used today. NREL likes to talk about its work on perovskites, an interesting, new technology. Innovative power electronics are emerging. So are new, solar-to-grid integration and microgrid interconnection systems, along with new PV materials, microelectronics and ‘crowdsourcing’ innovation to solve challenges,” Nilsen continued.

Solar energy technology is evolving fast, he pointed out. “The reality is that DOE doesn’t know each and every possible way of improving manufacturing of PV cells and modules. We’re trying to raise awareness of next-generation solar technologies, what’s going on in the market and what’s needed,” Nilsen said during the interview.

A novel structural approach to spurring solar tech innovation

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The Dept. of Energy is also carrying out other initiatives aimed at spurring US solar energy industry competitiveness. “The DOE is casting its award [American-Made Solar] as an approach to spur US-based PV manufacturing, but the language used to describe the scope of this competition is not clearly differentiated from other grants. As such, results will likely bear similarity to SunShot’s [the US DOE SunShot Initiative’s] existing Tech-to-Market awards but at a smaller scale,” Tyler Ogden, next-gen power analyst at Lux Research, told Solar Magazine.

What differentiates the American-made prize from other, similar DOE initiatives “is that it puts a lot more emphasis on leveraging a support network and industry mentors and is also open to both individuals and established companies,” Ogden continued. “While the $3 million is a small amount, it will make a significant impact on very early stage technology development and will be compounded by the support resources.”

“The awards will not spur a golden age of US-based manufacturing – China is too far ahead and Chinese government support dwarfs what the U.S. is doling out,” Ogden added. “However, they may bring to light some novel technologies or facilitate spin-offs from research labs. The US may see some success in supporting ‘bifacial’ panels, perovskites, or other approaches to tandem cells, but the prize reads more like a political stunt rather than a well-constructed solicitation,” Ogden concluded.

Market Share of Photovoltaic Cells
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Dept. of Energy likely would beg to differ. “The Administration is fully committed to strengthening America’s manufacturing competitiveness,” Energy Secretary Rick Perry stated upon the launch of the American-Made Solar Prize competition.

The Solar Prize brings together the nation’s best-in-class research resources, unparalleled entrepreneurial support system, and competitive, American spirit to create new innovations primed for private investment.

An administration focused on enhancing domestic US manufacturing

The US Solar Energy Industries Association lobbied strongly against the US imposing a second round of punitive import duties on silicon-based solar PV cells and modules. The industry association continues to engage policymakers and industry participants in an effort to find what it believes are better ways to address China’s global dominance of silicon solar PV manufacturing, as well as minimize the impact of the new import duties on the overall cost of installing solar PV systems in the US.

“We share this administration’s desire for strong American solar manufacturing, and this prize competition is a good way to spur innovative ideas,” SEIA President and CEO Abigail Ross Hopper stated for a press release. “The U.S. solar industry is a leader in entrepreneurship and ingenuity, and we support efforts like these that can pave the way to competitiveness for American companies.”

The Trump administration is very focused on improving domestic solar manufacturing, Simmons said. “This program is about fostering a stronger solar manufacturing community in the US.”

“Solar energy is important for the future and we want to look at every possible way to increase the value of solar PV production in the US. Let’s not assume that production is going to take place in other countries. Granted, it’s very difficult to compete with the Chinese given present conditions, but the future looks bright for solar technologies and we need to identify opportunities to capture that value in the US. So we’re looking forward to next-generation solar technologies to identify opportunities for US manufacturers,” Simmons concluded. comment

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