The CEO of Fayetteville-based Silicon Solar Solutions believes their “groundbreaking technique” to get more power out of solar panels could result in Arkansas being a U.S. hub of advanced solar technology and manufacturing.
It was announced Tuesday (Oct. 22) that Silicon Solar – an offshoot of technology developed at the University of Arkansas – is one of just 17 companies nationwide to receive a SunShot Incubator Grant. The grant to Silicon Solar is $500,000 and will be paid out over 12 months, according to Silicon Solar CEO Douglas Hutchings.
The SunShot program, administered by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), will award a total of $16 million to the 17 companies in this award cycle.
“It’s an honor and a privilege to have our firm recognized as one of the top innovators in the effort to produce cost-effective solar energy,” Hutchings said in a statement. “This grant will be a tremendous help in our efforts to secure the additional capital needed to move this from the lab to actual production.”
In an interview with The City Wire, Hutchings said the technology can be a game-changer in the alternative energy industry.
“The thing that gets me really excited about what we are doing is that this is a technology we are developing here in Arkansas, here at the University of Arkansas, that has a chance to impact the most important segment of the economy, and that is energy. We could be the technology that makes solar costs competitive,” said Hutchings, who earned a doctorate in microelectronics-photonics from the UA in 2010.
Deliveries of the first solar panels with the new technology are expected in 2014.
THE SUNSHOT PROGRAM
The goal of the SunShot program is to reduce the cost of solar-generated electricity to 6 cents per kilowatt-hour.
“When the price of solar electricity reaches about $0.06 per kilowatt-hour over its lifetime, it will be cost-competitive with other non-renewable forms of electricity,” notes information from the DOE. “This in turn will enable solar-generated power to grow from less than .05% of the current electricity supply to roughly 14% by 2030 and 27% by 2050, as projected in the SunShot Vision Study.”
A secondary goal of the national program is to boost U.S. manufacturing of solar panels.
“The U.S. market share has steadily declined in recent years, shrinking to 27% by 2000 and to 7% by 2010. SunShot will help re-establish American technological and market leadership, improve the nation's energy independence, and strengthen U.S. economic competitiveness,” according to the DOE.
THE TECHNOLOGY, PROCESS
So what does Silicon Solar produce? The following points provided by Silicon Solar best explain the process and plan to use the technology.
• Silicon Solar technology, a hydrogen selective emitter (HSE) invented by Seth Shumate, chief technology officer, could improve the efficiency of solar cells by 15%, drastically reducing the manufacturing cost per watt and making the panels more affordable for consumers. This represents the single largest efficiency gain in solar since 1972.
• The HSE is a single-step, post-production process that is not disruptive to a manufacturer’s existing production line.
• The HSE “tool” will be marketed through Picasolar Inc., a sister company that shares the same senior management and board of directors as Silicon Solar Solutions.
• The technology also reduces the amount of silver required for the panels, resulting in annual savings of $23 million per typical manufacturer.
• Hutchings said the HSE could be “a solution to a $5 billion problem in a $32 billion industry.”
• George Mazur, general manager with Meyer Burger, a Swiss company and a leading machine builder of equipment used to manufacture solar wafers, cells and modules, said Silicon Solar Solutions’ HSE could represent a major leap forward for solar energy. Silicon Solar is partnering with Meyer Burger to produce solar panels with the new technology.
Silicon Solar now employs seven engineers, most with doctorates, and will likely hire two more people in the next six months to help coordinate with the solar panel manufacturer, Hutchings said.
The business model is relatively simple. Silicon sells the HSE equipment and rights to license the technology to solar panel producers.
“OK, so this could get to the point where we are selling $300 million to $400 million worth of equipment. ... But also as the cost to manufacture is reduced, then we, the state may be where they (solar panels) are manufactured for a larger region,” Hutchings said. “I would say Arkansas has excellent logistics ... so it would be perfect for serving the region.”
Hutchings, Shumate and others with Silicon also are working to secure $2 million from investors or partners to prove that the technology can be scaled up for broad production.
“We’ve proven the process in the lab using low-cost manufacturing techniques and we’re confident the process will work in the marketplace,” Hutchings said.
When the first panels are delivered in 2014, it will mark a six-year adventure for a company Hutchings founded in 2008 while at the UA working on his doctorate. After obtaining start-up money, Hutchings and others with Silicon Solar competed in 16 international business competitions. They placed in the top three in each competition and won seven.
Tuesday’s DOE recognition of Silicon Solar was praised by U.S. Sens. John Boozman, R-Ark., and Mark Pryor, D-Ark.
“Silicon Solar Solutions has not only been a leader in our state, but across the nation when it comes to advancements in solar energy,” Pryor said in a statement. “Arkansas is proud to claim them as our own, and we look forward to seeing them build on their success with the SunShot Initiative Award. Our nation’s energy future is in good hands with innovative companies like Silicon Solar Solutions at the helm.”
“I congratulate Silicon Solar Solutions for its solar manufacturing innovations which help ease our dependence on foreign oil and gas,” Boozman said in his statement. “This national recognition shows that pioneering manufacturers are successful in Arkansas, due to our skilled workforce, business-friendly environment, transportation infrastructure, and low operating costs.”
Gov. Mike Beebe and UA Chancellor Dr. G. David Gearhart are expected to attend a 1:30 p.m. event on Wednesday (Oct. 23) to recognize the DOE grant to Silicon and to tour the UA laboratories shared by Silicon Solar.