ARIZONA DAILY STAR
December 13, 2011
It wasn’t exactly a chamber-of-commerce day in Tucson as a key U.S. Energy Department official visited on Monday to talk solar energy with local researchers and industry folks.
But despite the rain and gloom outside, Ramamoorthy Ramesh delivered a message of hope and urgency in a meeting at the University of Arizona Science and Technology Park.
Ramesh is director of the DOE’s Sunshot Initiative program, which aims to cut the unsubsidized, installed cost of solar energy by 75 percent – to about $1 per watt – by the end of the decade.
It’s going to be tough to beat China and other Asian competitors in the solar market on the price of solar modules, as China in particular is pouring money into solar manufacturing, Ramesh said.
He noted that the state-run China Development Bank Corp. has committed $30 billion in loans to back solar energy companies, mainly silicon photovoltaics (PV) manufacturers. Such subsidies have been cited as unfair in a pending trade complaint by U.S. solar companies.
“We’re not just fighting companies: We’re fighting countries,” said Ramesh, who is on leave as a professor at the University of California-Berkeley. “This is now a global competitiveness issue – we can’t give that away.”
But it’s well worth the effort, and new technologies in such areas as installation and energy storage hold promise to set the U.S. industry apart, Ramesh said during a roundtable with local solar researchers, industry leaders and UA officials.
In September, the DOE announced the award of more than $145 million to companies, labs and universities for about 45 research projects on subjects including advancing solar cell efficiency, grid integration, next-generation photovoltaics and so-called “balance of system” costs – such as mounting structures, labor, cables, engineering and combiner boxes.
None of the awards were to researchers in Arizona, but Ramesh said his office is preparing to solicit proposals for new awards for balance-of-system research that might be right in the wheelhouse of local researchers.
During the discussion, Ramesh was told of local solar research, including the Solar Zone, a 225-acre technology demonstration area at the UA tech park.
The zone has two PV arrays with five more planned, and a project to study compressed-air and advanced battery storage technologies. The effort is being funded and conducted by the UA’s Arizona Research Institute for Solar Energy, local solar manufacturer Solon Corp. and Tucson Electric Power Co.
Ramesh said his office plans to issue a solicitation for funding of storage projects in January.
The agency also will look to fund projects on cutting “non-hardware” balance-of-system costs, such as government permitting, he said, adding that he’d like to see standard, “plug-and-play” solar systems.
The balance-of-system cost-cutting approach resonated at the meeting.
Solon research chief Bill Richardson noted that the company recently launched a commercial rooftop PV panel system with an integrated mount made from a wood composite, cutting installation costs by 85 percent.
Urs Schoop, chief technology for thin-film PV maker Tucson-based Global Solar Energy Inc., said his company’s new flexible stick-on PV panels for the building-integrated commercial market are a good example of cutting balance-of-system costs.
Ramesh didn’t get to see the Solar Zone because of the rain, but he was favorably impressed by Monday’s visit, which was set up by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ office.
“It’s great. I think the UA and the tech park are doing a fantastic job,” he said.
“No one person has the resources to do this, so you need partnerships.”