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IMA Energy & Environment Blog

Making Our Solar Future with American Manufacturing

As we recognize National Manufacturing Day this month, how does solar energy fit into the picture? Solar represents a new world in which manufactured goods can generate low-cost electricity. For the first time in history, we don’t have to burn something up to power our everyday lives.

Every second that ticks by, six solar cells come off U.S. manufacturing lines that contain crystalline silicon. In 10 years, the Energy Department’s SunShot Initiative expects nearly three-times that amount to be racing across the lines, helping to make America a leader in high-tech solar manufacturing.

The United States participates in many ways in the manufacturing supply chain that designs and builds solar energy systems — from utility-scale to small residential. Just to name a few of these ways: we produce many of the feedstock materials and semi-finished components used to build and install photovoltaic (PV) systems; we provide tools and software for factory infrastructure, as well as real-time and off-line monitoring; and we assemble modules as thin film coatings on glass or individual crystalline silicon wafers. Across the value chain, the solar industry has seen major progress.

Many of the advances of the past several years are the result of projects funded by the SunShot Initiative. SunShot awardee 1366 Technologies is pioneering a new way to manufacture silicon wafers. The company has received funding from SunShot’s Incubator program and Solar Manufacturing Technology 2 program that allowed it to develop a process to make individual wafers directly from molten silicon. This eliminates two conventional process steps: creating solid blocks of silicon and sawing them into wafers, steps that generate a lot of waste in the form of expensive silicon sawdust. 1366’s innovative manufacturing process conserves silicon, allowing the company to develop more product from less material and transfer those savings onto consumers who purchase solar panels made with their wafers.

An awardee announced last month, Crystal Solar, is also developing a process that reduces costs by automating a pilot manufacturing line to make thin silicon wafers. Crystal Solar not only side-steps the silicon block forming and sawing stages, it simplifies the sourcing of high-purity polysilicon by directly forming a silicon wafer on a reusable surface. The process works by depositing solid layers of silicon from a cloud of vapor. This innovation will generate a replicable supply of single crystal silicon wafers using fewer steps than conventional manufacturing, which could make the wafers less expensive than others on the market.

Another Technology to Market awardee, Sunfolding, is developing a utility-scale, single-axis tracking system that uses air pressure to optimize a solar panel’s angle toward the sun. To make the system easier to manufacture, the project is reducing the number of parts in the tracking system using a metal stamping press that can rapidly produce final form components. It will also reduce material waste and defects, in turn lowering costs. The result will be a low-cost tracking system with improved efficiencies in construction and site design. It will also enable more efficient land use, something that SunShot awardee SunPower is also doing by flying drones over potential sites and then calculating the best way to fit the most solar panels for utility use.

Creating new, cutting-edge technology to improve American solar manufacturing will continue to be essential in achieving the SunShot goals for today and tomorrow.