The Department of Energy (DOE) last week released additional details of its “SunShot Initiative,” a program that seeks to reduce the total costs of photovoltaic (PV) solar energy systems by about 75% before 2020 so that costs for PV systems can compete with other forms of energy without subsidies.

“With the cost of utility-scale installations reduced to $1 a watt (or roughly 6 cents per kilowatt-hour), PV systems could be broadly deployed across the United States,” the agency’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) said. “The SunShot program evokes the legacy of President Kennedy’s 1960s ’moon shot’ goal, which laid out a plan to regain the country’s lead in the space race and land a man on the moon.”

According to the DOE, SunShot is expected to work to bring down the full cost of solar—including the costs of the solar cells and installation—by focusing on four areas: technologies for solar cells and arrays that convert sunlight to energy; electronics that optimize the performance of the installation; improvements in the efficiency of solar manufacturing processes; and improvements in installation, design, and permitting for solar energy systems.

In the past 10 years, the DOE has invested more than $1 billion in solar energy research. This includes investments by its Office of Science, Solar Energy Technologies Program, and ARPA-E, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.

“Innovations in both science and technology have driven the cost of solar down 60% since 1995, and have yielded a number of critical breakthroughs in solar PV performance and cost,” the DOE said.

The federally funded Energy Information Agency (EIA) said in a report released last week that the nation’s PV industry hit a “record high” in 2009, shipping “nearly 1.3 peak gigawatts of cells and modules.” This represents a nearly 30% increase over 2008. The number of active PV manufacturers and importers that ship PV cells and modules also increased 53%, from 66 companies in 2008 to 101 companies in 2009.

“Government stimulus funding and significant manufacturing cost reductions were believed to be major factors driving 2009 shipments,” the EIA said. “Although demand for solar cells/modules increased greatly, overall profit margins decreased significantly, compared with 2008.”

Last week, the DOE also announced that it would invest up to $20.3 million in “innovative projects” to strengthen the U.S. solar manufacturing industry, improve manufacturing efficiencies, and reduce costs. This includes the DOE’s Solar Energy Technologies Program support for companies across the solar energy supply chain, including U.S. material and tool suppliers and companies developing technologies that can be adopted directly into current manufacturing processes.

Awardees include:

  • 1366 Technologies: ($3 million, Lexington, Mass.): The goal of this project is to further develop a new, manufacturing process that dramatically reduces the cost of producing silicon wafers for use in silicon PV modules. The Direct Wafer process delivers significant improvements in manufacturing efficiency since it does not require sawing individual wafers from blocks of silicon.
  • 3M: ($4.4 million, St. Paul, Minn.): The goal of this project is to develop and commercialize a flexible, highly transparent Ultra Barrier Topsheet that will enable successful commercialization of flexible photovoltaic modules.
  • PPG: ($3.1 million, Cheswick, Penn.): The goal of this project is to develop the materials, coating designs, and manufacturing processes necessary to commercialize a new glass article for the Cadmium Telluride (CdTe) module manufacturing industry.
  •  Varian Semiconductor: ($4.8 million, Gloucester, Mass.): The goal of this project is to reduce the cost of manufacturing interdigitated back contact cells, the most efficient silicon solar cells on the market.
  • Veeco: ($4.8 million, Lowell, Mass.): The goal of this project is to accelerate the research and development, integration and commercialization of an innovative thin film CIGS (Copper, Indium, Gallium, Diselenide) PV multi-stage thermal deposition production system in order to manufacture cost-efficient CIGS PV solar cells.

Sources: EERE, EIA, POWERnews