DoE’s Bet on a Solar Winner

Semprius opens new factory for tiny solar cellsThe Semprius solar cell manufacturer is set to open its new facility in Henderson, North Carolina on September 26, and while churning out  solar cells the size of pencil points, it will generate more than 250 new green jobs. That figure only represents those employed directly by Semprius, so it’s a safe bet that the addition of the new high-tech factory to the region will stir the economic pot and create new jobs indirectly, too.

The new manufacturing jobs are significant enough, but the Semprius facility is also noteworthy as a model for the kind of public-private partnerships and advanced manufacturing technologies that will enable the U.S. to compete in the global alternative energy marketplace.

We built this!
If Semprius has a shot at success, the credit will be due not only to the new solar cell technology it has developed (which by the way garnered MIT’s prestigious Top 10 recognition this year), but to the advanced manufacturing process that will enable those cells to be produced at a relatively low cost.

Semprius is not shy about crediting the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory with supporting the development of its proprietary fabrication method, which involves a high tech micro-transfer printing process.

Part of that support came in the form of access to NREL experts, and another part was a $3 million grant Semprius won from the Department of Energy in 2009 under President Obama’s SunShot Initiative.

The tiny cells really are no bigger than a pencil point, and according to the company they are the most efficient solar cells of their kind, capable of converting 33.9  percent of the sun’s energy to electricity.

That’s all well and good in the laboratory, but the challenge is to mass-produce them at a consistently high level of quality, at a price point that enables them to compete in the energy marketplace.

That’s where the grants proved so successful.

Partnering for a new energy future and green jobs, too
Federally supported facilities have long played a significant role in providing the U.S. private sector with R&D support for new technologies, and the Department of Energy’s support for Semprius is firmly grounded in this tradition.

Also firmly in line with this tradition, new taxpayer-supported R&D facilities have been growing apace with the emergence of new energy technologies.

In Hawaii, the U.S. Navy has recently upgraded a shared test bed for private companies to develop new wave energy technologies. At Tulane University, federal funding has gone to establish the new Riversphere project, which includes a test bed for private companies to develop hydrokinetic devices for harvesting energy from slow-moving river currents.

Federal funding is also behind the new wind turbine testing facility at Clemson University, which will be the largest of its kind in the world, and the Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology has just finished building a new energy efficiency laboratory that will provide manufacturers and the construction trades with more precise methodologies for measuring the effectiveness of new technologies.

The public-private partnership also works on a broader level, one example being President Obama’s establishment of the Better Buildings Initiative to support private sector leadership in energy efficiency.

Another good example is the President’s Advanced Manufacturing Initiative to help the manufacturing sector transition from traditional fabrication methods to more flexible, nimble production processes.

Image: Solar cells the size of pencil points. Some rights reserved by Dvortygirl.

Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.

Tina is a career public information specialist and former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She writes frequently on sustainable tech issues for Triple Pundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, and she is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey.