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US boosts 'game-changer' solar technology in bid for global market share

The Department of Energy, aiming to boost US competitiveness, gives a $150m. loan guarantee to a Massachusetts firm that has found a way to dramatically reduce the cost of solar voltaic cells.

By Staff writer / June 17, 2011

Small solar wafers that have come out of the diffusion furnace. The pilot plant at 1366 Technologies creates efficient and lower cost solar cells out of silicon wafers. The Department of Energy has given the firm $150m. loan with the hope that the cost of solar power can be reduced to competitive levels.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File

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Solar power as cheap as coal, that's the holy grail of the solar power industry.

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It’s an elusive goal that has more than a few skeptics saying solar – no matter how much advocates pump it – will always remain the energy source of the future, and not the present.

“They're always just five years off no matter what year it is, in order to justify continued subsidies,” said a Wall Street Journal editorial last July, referring to photovoltaic and other renewable energy sources. Solar is “a speculative and immature technology that costs far more than ordinary power.”

But the US Department of Energy isn't buying that – just the opposite. In the past two years the Energy Department has offered over $12 billion in loan guarantees for 16 solar projects – about two thirds of the recipients are power plants, the rest are solar manufacturers – with stimulus funds from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Friday the DOE once again hammered home its view that solar’s promise is real, with a $150 million loan guarantee to 1366 Technologies, a Lexington, Mass.-based solar wafer manufacturing company that has a great new technology – but no manufacturing plant. Now it will.

“This project is a game-changer that could dramatically lower the cost of photovoltaic solar cells,” said Energy Secretary Steven Chu. “As global demand for solar cells increase, this kind of technology will help the US increase its market share.”

For 1366 Technologies – the company is named for the amount of energy in watts that strikes the earth’s atmosphere per square meter – the DOE’s vote of confidence is a big deal. The company, started in 2007 on the idea of MIT professor Emanuel Sachs, will now finally be able to demonstrate in production a technology that company officials say could vault the US to technological leadership in the manufacturing of solar cells.

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