Arkansas tech startup Picasolar won a $2 million award from the U.S. Department of Energy to bring its next-generation solar cell technology to market. The company is developing a new manufacturing process that reduces costs while producing a more efficient solar cell. Talk about having your cake and eating it, too.
The catch -- and there usually is one -- is that the company's secret sauce involves hydrogen, and the primary source for hydrogen today is natural gas. However, research on renewable hydrogen is developing apace. And if the timing works out, Picasolar's new solar solution could be a more sustainable one, too.
Picasolar's low-cost solar cell solution
To get that golden combo of high efficiency and low cost, Picasolar took a close look at the conventional process for boosting solar cell efficiency and manufacturing solar cells.
The conventional method involves physically depositing additives called dopants on a surface of solar cells, and then aligning a silver-based grid on top. That involves a lot of extra effort, precision and material, all of which contribute to a more expensive solar cell.
In particular, the conventional method uses a lot of silver. And silver is the next-most expensive material used in silicon solar cells, aside from the silicon itself, Picasolar says.
Picasolar's solution is something it calls the Hydrogenated Selective Emitter. It involves a one-step process in which the grid lines are put in place first. They act as a kind of mask to finalize the dopant part of the process. (Think silkscreening, and you're on the right track.)
That's where the hydrogen comes in. After the solar cell is completely finished, it is exposed to hydrogen. That creates an electric current which removes extra dopant in the areas between the grid lines, leaving a high concentration only under the grid lines, where it is needed.
Aside from its potential for more simple, less expensive manufacturing, the new process enables the grid lines to be spaced farther apart. That translates into a 15 to 20 percent reduction in the amount of silver needed. (The company's press materials say 15 percent, and its white paper estimates 20.) At the gigawatt scale, that savings runs into the tens of millions.
Fewer grid lines also results in a more efficient solar cell. Confirmed lab tests indicate an "absolute" improvement of 1 percent. That might not sound like much, but in solar efficiency terms it is a significant increment -- all the more so because it is achieved by lowering costs instead of raising them.
Arkansas is ready for the solar spotlight
As for getting a great idea off the drawing board and into the marketplace, Picasolar has that well in hand. Global solar giant Yingli Green Energy, through its U.S. subsidiary Yingli Americas, is sharing in that new $2 million Energy Department award.
The award comes from the Obama administration's SunShot initiative, which is aimed at bringing the cost of solar power down to parity with fossil fuels.
The new grant will help Yingli and Picasolar develop a pilot manufacturing project that will churn out 1,000 of the new solar panels.
Yingli's presence in Arkansas may come as a surprise to those of you familiar with the state's solar profile. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), Arkansas had about 24 companies in the solar industry as of last year, which together employed only 260 people. In 2015, the state ranked an unimpressive 40th nationally for installed solar capacity, with a total of only 20.1 megawatts.
However, that's about to change, big time.
In February 2015, the utility Ouachita Electric Cooperative partnered with Aerojet Rocketdyne, Southern Arkansas University-Tech and other stakeholders to develop a 12-megawatt solar farm. At the time of construction, it was the largest solar farm in the state.
The Ouachita solar farm went into operation in April of this year, but it won't be the largest solar farm in Arkansas for munch longer.
In April of 2015, the Florida-based company Entergy had its Entergy Arkansas branch announce the development an 81-megawatt solar farm. Grid connection for the behemoth facility is expected some time in 2019.
Wind energy has also been slow to blossom in Arkansas, and it looks like the state's residents will have to wait a while to see their first wind farm.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a 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.