Friday, December 07, 2012

DOE Funds Four Solar Research Projects


The U.S. Department of Energy said Friday it will give $29 million to four projects for reducing the costs of installing solar panels and helping utilities figure out how to manage the growing amount of solar electricity that flows into their grids.

The funding is part of an initiative called SunShot, which was launched in early 2011 to make solar electricity cheap to produce and therefore competitive against energy from coal or natural gas power plants. The goal is to cut the production costs of large-scale solar projects to $1 per watt — or about $0.06 per kilowatt-hour – by 2020.

The department plans to dole out up to $21 million over five years to two projects that will create “plug-and-play” solar energy producing equipment. The idea is to make it simpler and cheaper for homeowners to buy, install and bring online a system of solar panels, electronic equipment and wires that connect solar panels to the grid – all in one day.

The North Carolina State University ($9.1 million) will work on standardizing the designs of the components and the overall solar energy system for a home’s rooftop. A research center in Cambridge, Mass., called Fraunhofer’s Center for Sustainable Energy Systems ($11.7 million) will work on designing cabling that will make it easier for connecting the solar panels to a smart meter and the grid. Fraunhofer also will design a system to allow the solar energy equipment to check itself for proper installation and to send its power generation data to the local utility.

The energy department will provide up to $8 million to two projects that will create better tools for predicting the amount, timing and location of electricity generation from solar power plants. Currently there are ways for solar power plant owners to crunch numbers to project how much electricity their power plants might generate year after year. But some of the methods aren’t sophisticated or they aren’t proven, particularly since the U.S. doesn’t have many solar power plants that have been operating for decades.

The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research ($4.2 million) in Boulder, Colo., will research the impact of clouds on solar energy generation and design short-term forecasting techniques. The IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center ($3.8 million) in Armonk, N.Y., will use a supercomputer to analyze various forecasting methods and figure out the best ways to predict solar energy production.

Being able to forecast solar energy production is crucial for maintaining the health of an electric grid. The amount of solar electricity flowing from a power plant can fluctuate, sometimes significantly, depending on the weather and other conditions. At the same time, an electric grid runs smoothly only when there is a balance of supply and demand. Making sure that a surge of solar electricity into the grid – or a big drop off of it – will not disrupt the grid and cause a blackout is a big worry for utilities and electric grid operators.

There are several ways to ensure the grid runs well. Utilities could use a type of natural gas power plants that can turn on and produce power quickly to make up for any shortfall. Using batteries or other equipment to store solar electricity and drawing on the power when needed is another way. The need to engineer energy storage equipment that could work well with solar or wind power plants has prompted many private and public investments in battery and other storage technologies.

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