How Groundbreaking Is DOE’s New $53M Solar Investment?

Originally published by Greentech Media

 With 40 new recipients, it depends on the company. The Department of Energy contends its SunShot investments are targeting the right places.
Ernest Moniz is an all-of-the above kind of energy secretary. He's a supporter of advanced nuclear, natural gas, carbon sequestration and all kinds of renewables — and has the diverse funding at the Department of Energy to show for it.

But there's one technology that he's been giving a lot of special attention: solar.

"I think solar is in a good place," said Moniz, standing amidst a 6.4-megawatt solar installation on the roof of the Mandalay Bay convention center in Las Vegas on Wednesday. "I think we're there."

Well, not all the way there.

Just an hour before climbing onto the roof of the MGM Grand building, Moniz was at the Solar Power International conference, where he unveiled $53 million in new investments through the SunShot Initiative designed to drop the cost of solar manufacturing and deployment.

Talking with reporters after his speech, Moniz described the SunShot Initiative as one of the most crucial pieces of the DOE's solar strategy.

"There are lot of new ideas — not only on the technology side, but on the marketing side. And the more we get solar out there, the more the costs will get driven lower and lower," he said.

Since 2011, the SunShot Initiative has invested $250 million to $270 million yearly in companies working to strip the production and installation cost out of photovoltaics and concentrating solar power. By the end of the decade, the DOE hopes to drop the average levelized cost of solar in America to $0.06 per kilowatt-hour.

The latest funding round from SunShot targets nearly every kind of actor across the PV industry: more than three dozen universities, cell and panel manufacturers, software firms and balance-of-system technology vendors.

But the investment also raises another question about how the DOE supports companies. Would some of the companies supported by the SunShot incubator be doing what they won money for, even without government support?

For example, Mosaic won a $650,000 award to develop a solar loan product and sales platform for installers — a move it was already making before ever getting SunShot money. Mosaic already got $2 million from SunShot to develop its crowdsourcing platform, which it's now moving away from in order to focus on loans.

The distributed storage developer Stem also pulled in $875,000 to build a software platform for managing battery systems — again, something that was already seemingly part of its organic business.

That's not to say that these companies aren't doing something innovative or beneficial to the industry. The question is whether they'd be doing it outside of SunShot.

"We approach all the awards in a very methodical and consistent manner," said Minh Le, director of the Solar Energy Technologies office at the DOE. He said it's statistically harder to get a SunShot award than to get admitted to Stanford, and that all applications are rigorously reviewed to determine market need.

Le responded to GTM's questions about whether government help actually promotes projects that wouldn't otherwise get done.

"SunShot incentivizes companies to pursue more ambitious goals than they otherwise might do on their own. The goals outlined in a given funding application are often adjusted throughout our award negotiation process in order to maximize the impact of the project," he said.

Le also said the DOE funds are matched by recipients, which gives both parties an incentive to maximize the investment.

"Our awardees commit to sharing the cost of these projects from the beginning, and this combination of public funds and previously agreed upon private cost share funds ensures that all parties are devoted to the project’s ultimate success," he explained.

The department awarded $14 million to twenty businesses in its latest incubator round, the majority of which are developing software platforms for streamlining projects, acquiring customers or analyzing the grid. Some are more mature and might well have developed a product without government help. Others, like the startup Faraday, which received $1 million from SunShot, are using the money to build capabilities they otherwise wouldn't have had.

Faraday is creating multi-channel marketing software based on machine learning that enables installers, financiers and manufacturers to target customers based on income, credit score, roofing size, age, income — any factor that might be relevant to their sales. Faraday has been able to expand from four people to eight people with money from DOE.

"SunShot was a big part of helping build our model and start approaching installers," said Robbie Adler, Faraday's president and co-founder.

On the R&D and manufacturing front, SunShot is also giving nearly $40 million in awards to U.S. manufacturers and universities to try out new types of semiconductors, deposition tools, glass coating and high-efficiency cell structures — projects that are far more likely to need government support at an early stage.

Le pointed to Suniva, the high-efficiency crystalline silicon solar cell manufacturer based in Georgia, as an example of how SunShot thinks about technology investments. Because of DOE's previous investments in Varian Semiconductor, which is partnering with Suniva, Le said it helped the manufacturer boost the efficiency of its cells. Suniva is now building a 200-megawatt production facility in Michigan to scale the technology.

"DOE supported the underlying technology in many phases. We created a tool set to allow it to come into fruition. We look at this from a pipeline standpoint," said Le.

So are all the funds supporting companies that absolutely need government money to build new products? That's very hard to determine, particularly on the software side. But DOE says it provides guidance and financial support to companies in a way that helps them deliver better products than if they were on their own.

According to Le, SunShot investments have leveraged at least $2.3 billion in follow-on capital from the private sector — a sign that DOE has invested in the right places.