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Tina Casey headshot

Trump Stakes $46.2 Million on New Solar Power Technology

By Tina Casey

Renewable energy stakeholders have been deeply concerned that the Trump administration will slow or even halt progress on decarbonizing the U.S. economy. However, the Department of Energy has continued to roll out new federal investments in support of renewable energy, most recently a new round of $46.2 million in funding for advanced solar power technology.

The new grants expose a sharp rift between President Trump's rhetoric in support of the coal industry and the actions of his own Energy Department, so let's take a closer look.

The SunShot Solar Initiative

The new round of funding comes under the Energy Department's SunShot Initiative, and that is a point of interest all by itself.

SunShot has roots in the 2006 Solar America Initiative of the Bush Administration, which had the relatively modest goal of achieving 5-10 gigawatts of solar-generated electricity by 2015.

In 2011, the Obama administration gave U.S. solar research a much bigger dose of adrenaline by launching the SunShot initiative with a new goal: bringing the cost of unsubsidized solar power down to parity with fossil fuels by 2020 (the SunShot name refers to the Kennedy-era "Moon Shot" effort that vaulted the U.S. into global leadership in space).

As President Obama was completing his first term in office, the Energy Department estimated that SunShot had passed the 60 percent mark toward its parity goal, and it reached the 90 percent mark in 2016.

The agency's progress is even more impressive for the utility-scale solar power sector. That goal was set at $1.00 per watt by 2020 for "fixed-tilt" arrays, meaning solar panels that remain in a fixed position instead of tilting to catch the sun at an optimal angle as it arcs across the sky.

As recently as 2011 that sector weighed in at $4.00 per watt. According to GreenTech Media, it sank under the $1.00 per watt goal by the end of 2016 -- three years ahead of schedule.

Not content to rest on its laurels, near the end of Obama's second term the Energy Department set a new goal of cutting the cost of solar-generated electricity in half again between 2020 and 2030.

$46.2 million for advanced solar power R&D

Political observers have noted that President Trump seems determined to erase the accomplishments of the Obama Administration, but so far SunShot seems to have escaped his notice, along with many other Energy Department initiatives promoting renewables.

The new round of $46.2 million has a long goal in mind. The funds will cover 48 projects fostering "early-stage solar power technologies" that help achieve the new cost-cutting goal of the Obama Administration, while also improving reliability and efficiency.

In a press release announcing the new funds last week, the Energy Department made it clear that SunShot has the full support of the Trump Administration -- at least, for the time being:

“The SunShot Initiative is a proven driver of solar energy innovation,” SunShot Initiative Director Charlie Gay said. “These projects ensure there’s a pipeline of knowledge, human resources, transformative technology solutions, and research to support the industry.”

Twenty-eight of the projects come under a SunShot early stage research program called Photovoltaics Research and Development 2: Modules and Systems.

PVRD2 is a relatively new initiative aimed at bringing the cost of solar power down to $0.03 per kilowatt hour. It supports technologies that are considered "high-risk," meaning that there is little or no attraction for private sector investment:

PVRD2 supports a wide variety of photovoltaics research pathways, including module design, high-risk emerging research, and technology facilitating rapid installation. Nearly 80 percent of these projects are led by academic institutions, ensuring that the next generation of energy researchers pursue cutting-edge solar technologies.

For example, in the new round of funding MIT will receive $225,000 for a project called "Two-Dimensional Material Based Layer Transfer for Low-Cost, High-Throughput, High-Efficiency Solar Cells."

This project is aimed at replacing the conventional method for "growing" high efficiency solar cells with a new low-cost method based on graphene.

The other 20 projects come under the SunShot Technology to Market 3 program for "highly impactful" solar power technologies. This initiative identifies innovations that have market potential, and provides support for getting to the next level of R&D leading to private sector investment:

Despite solar’s rapid growth, the challenge remains for small businesses to find funding for early-stage, transformative technology research and development. Businesses that receive funding under this program will perform the early-stage research to bring their technologies to a proof point where they are ready for private sector follow-on support.

Examples in this category include a $1 million grant to Echogen Power systems of Ohio for a next-generation energy storage system to complement concentrating solar power systems.

Some of the funding also goes to software that advances the cause of low cost solar power. One example is a Washington State company called Omnidian, which will receive almost $800,000 to develop a platform for managing and maintaining residential solar arrays.

So, What Happens Next?

President Trump made support for coal workers a central feature of his 2016 election campaign. He has continued to talk up the coal industry during his term despite a growing consensus among economists and coal industry executives that the days of coal dominance are numbered.

Nevertheless, except for a brief foray in to climate denial territory earlier this month, Energy Secretary Rick Perry has steadily undercut Trump's pro-coal rhetoric by cheerleading relentlessly for his agency's renewable energy and energy efficiency programs -- even to the point of re-designing the Energy Department's entire home page to focus visitors on a new "Science & Innovation" link that includes sublinks to "clean energy," "energy efficiency" and yes, "climate change."

Secretary Perry took a bit of a break from plugging renewables during the White House's "Energy Week" publicity event at the end of June, but since then his agency has resumed its torrent of press releases, blog posts, tweet and other social media favoring renewable energy.

In the meantime, Trump himself gave the solar industry a boost last month when he proposed using solar power to pay for a border wall with Mexico, which was another one of his key campaign promises.

Many political observers understood that to be a joke, but apparently Trump was serious -- or so he said in an interview last week with several reporters on board Air Force One. Vanity Fair provides this account:

“There is a chance that we can do a solar wall,” Trump said. “We have major companies looking at that. Look, there’s no better place for solar than the Mexico border—the southern border. And there is a very good chance we can do a solar wall, which would actually look good. But there is a very good chance we could do a solar wall.”

In the end, though, the President's newfound enthusiasm for solar power may not help him avoid the consequences of several investigations tying Trump staff and advisors, including his son and son-in-law, to activity on behalf of a foreign adversary interfering in the 2016 presidential election.

Image (screenshot): U.S. Department of Energy.

Tina Casey headshot

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.

Read more stories by Tina Casey