In the last week, the US Department of Energy has announced two projects for which it is providing important loan guarantees-all part of the accelerating effort to bring down the cost of solar power on your homes and on solar farms. Together these projects show promise to make solar power less expensive and more competitive with traditional energy sources in the near future.
Last week, the Department of Energy offered a loan guarantee of $275 million to Calisolar, Inc. to expand Calisolar's silicon purification capabilities by "repurposing" an abandoned GM stamping plant in Ontario, Ohio. These days, you have to frame the argument in favor of solar by showing job creation and Calisolar is playing this card well.
Calisolar estimates that the plant will provide over one thousand permanent jobs and one thousand temporary jobs during construction. While many industry experts, and certainly the state of Ohio, are excited by the possibility of this offer, Calisolar, has been more circumspect, not even announcing the news on its website.
An editorial in the Mansfield News Journal may give an hint why Calisolar is mum on this new project-it is trying to put together some other important parts of this relatively complicated project: "The conditions for the loan include finalizing a deal for a site and beginning construction/renovations by the end of September. Meeting the September date for beginning construction would be difficult for Calisolar to meet anywhere but at the old GM plant. There are other parts of the deal other than the site that must be completed."
Undoubtedly this story will continue to develop in the weeks and months to come but a less expensive and steadier supply of purified silicon should help push prices down on many electronic components from computer chips to solar panels.
In a similar press release on Friday June 17, the Department of Energy announced that it would provide a loan guarantee of $150 million to 1336 Technologies, a Massachusetts company manufacturing silicon wafers for use in solar panels. Wafers are the heart of the solar panel as they are directly responsible for harnessing the sun's energy. Traditional wafer construction involves melting silicon, casting it as ingots and then shaving the ingot down to 200 microns; often during the shaving process substantial amounts of silicon are lost as dust. As reported by the New York Times, 1336 Technologies has developed a wafer-manufacturing process that eliminates much of this loss and could reduce the price of solar panels by 40 to 50 percent. DOE Secretary Steven Chu said on Friday,
This project is a game-changer that could dramatically lower the cost of photovoltaic solar cells. It is exactly the kind of innovation that puts America at the forefront of the global clean energy race... As global demand for solar cells increases, this kind of technology will help the U.S. increase its market share and be more competitive with other countries such as China, which currently accounts for 60 percent of the world supply of multicrystalline wafers.
This will be the third DOE loan for 1366 Technologies but far overshadows the $7million it have received in two installments since its founding in 2007. According to Reuters, 1336 says "it will use the DOE loan guarantee funds to scale-up this production process in its first two factories: a 20 MW plant in Massachusetts that's supposed to be online by 2013 and a larger, 1 GW factory that will go under construction in 2013 in a location yet to be determined." This news coincides nicely with the Calisolar news and could ensure a supply of affordable silicon wafers for large-scale solar panel production in the United States.
With more purified silicon and cheaper silicon wafers, the United States should be able to increase domestic production and development of solar panels to keep on pace with, and even exceed, current predictions.