Solar power in the U.S. received multiple boosts in the past week as the Department of Energy (DOE) finalized $2.7 billion in loan guarantees for solar projects in California while making available $170 million in funding for solar photovoltaic (PV) technologies, and GE Energy announced plans for what it said will be the biggest solar PV panel factory in the U.S.

DOE Finalizes Solar Loan Guarantees

The DOE on Monday finalized $1.6 billion in loan guarantees to support BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System, a project that consists of three utility-scale concentrating solar power (CSP) plants in California. On Tuesday it announced a conditional commitment for a $1.187 billion loan guarantee for SunPower’s California Valley Solar Ranch PV project.

The 392-MW Ivanpah project, funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, will be located on federal land in the Mojave Desert near the Nevada border. The project includes a solar field containing more than 173,000 dual-mirror heliostats, which are programmed to follow the sun, and "power towers" to collect the energy. Electricity from the project will be sold under long-term power purchase agreements with Pacific Gas and Electric Company and Southern California Edison Company. The loan guarantee is the first offered to a solar project in the U.S.

The California Valley Solar Ranch PV project, which is being built in San Luis Obispo County, Calif., includes the construction of a 250-MW alternating current PV solar generating facility. The DOE said the project will be the largest utility-scale PV project in the U.S. to use tracking technology combined with an innovative monitoring system. It is estimated that it will improve annual output by approximately 25% compared with traditional fixed PV installations.

The DOE’s Loan Programs Office has issued loan guarantees or offered conditional commitments for loan guarantees totaling $19 billion to support 21 clean energy projects.

DOE Offers $170 M for Solar Technologies

Last week, the DOE announced nearly $170 million in available funding over three years as part of the SunShot Initiative to support a range of solar PV technologies.

The Funding Opportunity Announcement will support four areas of investment, including improving the efficiency and performance of solar cells, developing new installation technologies, advancing solar energy grid integration, and researching new materials and processes for PV technologies. These investments should help reduce the cost for utility-scale solar energy installations, increase U.S. economic competitiveness, and help the U.S. lead the world in the global market for solar photovoltaics, the DOE said.

Opportunities include:

  • Foundational Program to Advance Cell Efficiency (F-PACE): In a collaborative funding effort with the National Science Foundation, $39 million is available for research and development in solar device physics and PV technology to improve PV cell performance and reduce the costs of modules for grid-scale commercial applications.
  • PV Balance of Systems: $60 million in funding is available for research, development, and demonstration of balance-of-system components. Projects may include new building-integrated photovoltaic products, new mounting and wiring technologies, and new building code language that can foster the use of innovative, low-cost hardware designs while maintaining safety and reliability.
  • Solar Energy Grid Integration Systems (SEGIS)-Advanced Concepts: $40 million in funding is available to develop technologies that will help increase the integration of solar energy onto the electrical grid and facilitate interactions between solar energy systems and smart grid technologies. This could include projects focused on improved energy storage technologies and better system functionality. SEGIS-Advanced Concepts will also support projects like high-voltage systems that reduce the overall installed costs associated with balance-of-systems components costs for installations and projects focused on technologies like micro-inverters that are capable of harvesting more energy from the sun.
  • PV Next Generation: $30 million in funding is available for early-stage applied research to demonstrate and prove new concepts in materials, processes, and device designs for solar PV component development at the laboratory scale.

The SunShot Initiative seeks to reduce the total costs of PV solar energy systems by about 75% by the end of the decade so that they are cost-competitive with other forms of energy at large scale without subsidies. Achieving this goal, equivalent to approximately $1 a watt or roughly 6 cents per kilowatt-hour for utility systems, would allow solar energy systems to be broadly deployed across the country, the DOE said.

GE to Build Largest Solar Panel Factory in the U.S.

Announcing that a full-size, thin film solar panel developed by the company had been independently certified “as the most efficient ever publicly reported milestone for the technology,” GE last week said it would make the solar panels at a new U.S. factory that will be “larger than any existing solar panel factory in the country today.”

GE’s so-called “record-setting” solar panel was measured by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) at a 12.8% aperture area efficiency. That efficiency level surpasses previously published records for cadmium telluride thin film, which is the most affordable solar technology in the industry, GE claims. “Continually increasing solar panel efficiency is a key component of GE’s goal to offer advanced solar products while reducing the total cost of electricity for utilities and consumers,” the company said in a press release. “In fact, a 1 percent increase in efficiency is equal to an approximate 10 percent decrease in system cost.”

Multiple locations are being considered for the planned 400-MW factory, and a final location will be announced shortly.

The company has so far poured more than $600 million into solar technology and commercialization because, it said, global demand for PV is expected to grow by 75 GW over the next five years, with utility-scale solar power plants contributing to a significant portion of that growth. Two key acquisitions, of a power conversion company and thin-film solar technology company PrimeStar Solar, are expected to help the company enhance its renewable energy portfolio, GE said.

“Over the last decade, through technology investment, GE has become one of the world’s major wind turbine manufacturers, and our investment in high-tech solar products will help us continue to grow our position in the renewable energy industry,” said Victor Abate, vice president of GE’s renewable energy business. “We are addressing the biggest barrier for the mainstream adoption of solar technology—cost—and the NREL certification proves that we are on track to deliver the most affordable solutions for our customers.”

Last week, GE also announced more than 100 MW of new commercial agreements for solar thin film products, including panels, inverters, and total solar power plants. GE’s largest solar agreement to date is with NextEra Energy for 60 MW of thin film solar panels. GE also has signed a 20-MW solar agreement with Invenergy for the supply of thin film solar panels and GE Brilliance inverters.

Sources: POWERnews, EERE, DOE, GE