The U.S. Department of Energy announced $105.5 million in new funding on Tuesday to support innovative solar research in four core areas. 

The latest funding opportunity, offered under the DOE's Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO), reflects a priority shift from later-stage commercialization to early-stage research. It also represents a shift from focusing exclusively on driving down the cost of solar, to improving the affordability, flexibility and performance of solar on the grid — with the largest portion of funding aimed at solar systems integration.

The program launch comes now that the federal budget has been squared away for 2018. It follows a DOE announcement in January aimed at backing U.S. solar manufacturing and a funding opportunity announced in December aimed at supporting solar forecasting.

“American ingenuity is the engine of our energy economy,” said Energy Secretary Rick Perry, in a statement. “Investing in all of our abundant energy sources, including solar technologies, will help to drive down costs and ensure that the nation leads the world in energy production and innovation.”

Charlie Gay, director of SETO, echoed that reducing solar costs remains a priority for the DOE, but noted that the methods of cutting costs have changed as the market has matured.

“We’re not taking our eyes off the road in working on cost reduction for CSP and PV,” said Gay, in an interview. “But in order to help scale the growth — with so much of cost reduction being related to scale — helping integrate more solar into the grid and taking advantage of microgrid opportunities...would go a long way toward reinforcing the resiliency of the grid and grid security. [Those] are elements that will help expand the market.”

He added that combining energy efficiency with the ability to manage load profiles will help advance the adoption of PV on the distribution system. The integration of sensor technology to better understand what's happening on the grid will also be beneficial for the broader electricity sector as more solar comes online. 

"The success of getting costs down means that we have to work together with a whole lot of other stakeholders to get the momentum we want to continue [in bringing costs down],” said Gay.

With the new funding opportunity, SETO plans to select around 70 projects across the following four subject areas:

  • Advanced Solar Systems Integration Technologies (up to $46 million, approximately 14 projects) 
  • Concentrating Solar Power Research and Development (up to $24 million, approximately 21 projects)
  • Photovoltaics Research and Development (up to $27 million, approximately 28 projects)
  • Improving and Expanding the Solar Industry through Workforce Initiatives (up to $8.5 million, approximately 4 projects)

In the Advanced Solar Systems Integration Technologies category, funding will be used to support advances in power electronics, solar-plus-storage, and PV-integrated sensor technologies. This work "will help ensure a smooth transition to a secure, reliable, and resilient grid of the future," according to the DOE announcement.

CSP concepts and technology solutions supported by the latest funding opportunity will be aimed at enabling the solar industry to reach DOE’s 2030 levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) targets for CSP, including $0.05 per kilowatt-hour for systems with greater than 12 hours of onsite storage. Research in this area will focus on advancing elements found in CSP subsystems, including collectors and thermal transport systems for advanced power cycles.

In the PV segment, DOE is looking to support early-stage research aimed at increasing the performance, reducing materials and processing costs, and improving the reliability of PV cells, modules and systems. These projects support DOE’s efforts to lower LCOE for utility-scale PV systems to $0.03 per kilowatt-hour by 2030. Based on national labs data, that's roughly half the cost of utility-scale solar today.

The fourth area, focused on the solar workforce, will target projects that seek to prepare the solar industry for a digital future, while also increasing the number of veterans and overall participants in the solar sector., 

"Secretary Perry's announcement today is yet another positive step in strengthening this important public-private relationship between the federal government and the American solar industry," said Abigail Ross Hopper, the President and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association. "We look forward to fulfilling this opportunity with innovative solar projects that drive America's energy economy to a cleaner, more affordable and reliable future."

For those interested in applying, mandatory letters of intent for all topics are due on May 4 and mandatory concept papers are due by May 9.

Separately, the DOE announced up to $20 million in funding on Wednesday for nine projects to advance early-stage solar power electronics technologies.

"As the critical link between PV arrays and the electric grid, advances in power electronics can also help grid operators rapidly detect and respond to problems, protect against physical and cyber vulnerabilities, and enable consumers to manage electricity use," according to a press release. "Advanced solar power electronics can also help deliver power safely, integrate PV with storage controls, and ensure power reliability."

Each of the nine projects must meet a 20 percent cost share requirement and last up to three-years. The power electronics awards are cooperative agreements — rather than grants — which involve substantial federal oversight and technical milestones.

The nine projects in Power Electronics include:

  • Flex Power Control, Inc. – Encino, California
  • Georgia Institute of Technology – Atlanta, Georgia.
  • North Carolina State University – Raleigh, North Carolina
  • Oak Ridge National Laboratory – Oak Ridge, Tennessee
  • University of Arkansas – Fayetteville, Arkansas
  • University of Maryland, College Park – College Park, Maryland
  • University of Texas at Austin – Austin, Texas
  • University of Washington – Seattle, Washington
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University – Blacksburg, Virginia

This story was updated to note the $20 million in funding for solar power electronics technologies.