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Solar Energy Technologies Office

In 2011, the Energy Department's Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) became the SunShot Initiative, a collaborative national effort that aggressively drives innovation to make solar energy fully cost-competitive with traditional energy sources before the end of the decade. SunShot drives research, manufacturing, and market solutions to make the abundant solar energy resources in the United States more affordable and accessible for Americans. The program works with private companies, universities, and national laboratories to achieve its central goal: to drive down the cost of solar electricity to $0.06 per kilowatt-hour (kWh). Since SunShot's inception, the average price per kWh of a utility-scale PV project has dropped from about $0.21 to $0.14, placing the initiative well on its way to achieving its $0.06 per kWh goal by 2020.

Research Topics

SunShot is interested in funding research at domestic institutions and national laboratories. The program is also interested in supporting collaborative research at facilities outside the U.S. Applicants are strongly encouraged to pursue research opportunities at foreign research facilities (e.g., Europe, Australia and Japan).

S-501 Applying Behavioral Insights to Solar Soft Cost Reduction

Possible Disciplines: Behavioral Economics, Applied Economics, Computer Science, Social Science

In 2013, 64 cents of every dollar spent on residential solar went to soft costs - the aggregated costs for installing panels, commissioning them, and connecting them to the grid. Soft cost reduction is unique from hardware innovation because it deals directly with people and processes - like customer acquisition strategies, diffusion of best practices to local government officials, and relationships between decision makers at energy institutions such as solar installers and electric utilities. Soft cost progress benefits from applying results from social and behavioral science to refine the ways that solar energy systems are bought, sold, designed, and monitored.

SunShot is seeking to support postdoctoral researchers to apply and advance cutting-edge social and behavioral science to drive toward the national solar cost reduction goals.

Areas of interest include:

  • Design, implementation, and evaluation of randomized control trials in partnership with institutions piloting new solar policies and programs (such as electric utilities and municipal governments)
  • Using behavioral economics to understand consumer preferences and the effectiveness of messaging and framing related to solar adoption strategies;
  • Analysis of energy consumption patterns (using Green Button data) and energy efficiency upgrade decisions before and after solar adoption at residential- and commercial-scales; and
  • Human-interface design for solar monitoring devices.

S-502 Applying Data Science to Solar Cost Reduction

Possible Disciplines: Behavioral Economics, Applied Economics, Computer Science, Social Science

The emergence of new big data tools can revolutionize how solar technologies are researched, developed, demonstrated, and deployed. From computational chemistry and inverse material design to adoption, reliability, and insolation forecasting, data scientists have opportunities to dramatically impact the future of solar energy.
SunShot is seeking to support postdoctoral researchers to apply and advance cutting-edge data science to drive toward the national solar cost reduction goals.

Areas of interest include:

  • Computational methods for revealing insights about diffusion of solar technologies at the residential, commercial, and utility scales that ingest large administrative, geospatial, economic, and financial datasets;
  • Novel analysis of Green Button (smart meter) data;
  • Quantification of direct and external cost and benefits of distributed energy generation and storage;
  • Numerical prediction methods for electrical grid operations and planning such as solar insolation forecasting as well as PV system performance;
  • Data tools for advancing photovoltaic and concentrating solar power technologies.).

S-503 Solar Systems Integration

Possible Disciplines: Power Systems Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Computer Science

The Systems Integration (SI) program of the SunShot Initiative aims to enable extreme penetration of solar energy onto the electricity grid by addressing the associated technical and regulatory challenges. In order to enable 100’s of GW of solar interconnected on the nation’s electricity grid, we seek postdoctoral research projects that will help us address significant challenges in the following thrust areas:

Grid Performance and Reliability focuses on achieving high penetration at the distribution level (< 69kV) and on the transmission grid in a seamless, safe, reliable and cost effective manner.

Topics of interest include, but are not limited to:

  • Utility modeling, simulation, and analysis tools to address technical issues surrounding grid planning, operations, and reliability;
  • Developing advanced grid-friendly PV interconnection technologies;
  • Accelerating cost-effective deployment of PV generation on the distribution and transmission grid;
  • Developing validated inverter, solar system planning, operations and feeder models to enhance PV integration analysis techniques;
  • Demonstrating the feasibility of high-penetration PV scenarios under a wide range of system conditions through laboratory and field testing;
  • Advancing interconnection and performance standards and codes to enable high levels of PV integration for grid reliability.

Dispatchability aims to ensure that solar power plants based on PV and concentrating solar power (CSP) technologies at utility and distributed scales are capable of being dispatched in a fashion that is comparable to or better than conventional power plants.

Topics of interest include, but are not limited to:

  • Extensive analyses to understand the impact of high penetration of solar power plants on the bulk power system and distribution system operations
  • Understanding and enhancing the dispatch capability of PV solar power plants, and investigating the value of varying energy storage capabilities for CSP plants
  • Development of standardized methods for testing grid performance of PV solar power plants, and exploring and demonstrating the value of energy storage.

Power Electronics seeks to develop intelligent devices with advanced functionalities that maximize the power output from the PV arrays on the one side and serve as the interfaces to the electric grid (or end use circuits) on the other, while ensuring overall system performance, safety, reliability, and controllability at minimum cost.

Topics of interest include, but are not limited to:

  • Innovative circuit design that maximizes power output from the PV arrays
  • Development of advanced components and optimal control
  • Development of power electronics technologies to improve energy yield while reducing balance of system (BOS) hardware costs, process costs and installation time; development and field demonstration of smart inverter functionalities
  • Development of accelerated life testing methods for full PV systems
  • Physics of failure models to predict faults and improve reliability of PV systems

Communications help inform grid operations effectively with high-level integration of solar, requiring visibility across multiple spatial scales (from the end-user load through the distribution substation and beyond) and at multiple time scales (from microseconds to hours and days).

Topics of interest include, but are not limited to:

  • Advances in information, communication, and sensor technologies to adequately monitor the behavior and manage the impact of the solar technologies integrating into the grid
  • Enterprise level integration of PV management systems with grid management systems
  • Development of open and interoperable communication and control architectures
  • Development of communication requirements such as network latency, scalability, and availability
  • Implementation of standard communication protocols in inverter hardware and enterprise software
  • Demonstration of end-to-end system integration and interoperability on actual distribution feeders with utilities.

For the description of these thrust areas, please refer to:

S-504 Concentrating Solar Power Materials and Systems

Possible Disciplines: Mechanical Engineering, Chemical Engineering

Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) technologies, such as parabolic trough, power tower, linear Fresnel, and dish engine systems and their associated thermal energy storage, are targeted under the SunShot Program for greater than 50% system cost reduction through advanced technology development. Proposals addressing these and alternative CSP technologies will be considered based upon determined feasibility to achieve SunShot cost goals.

Topics of interest include, but are not limited to:

  • Low-cost (≤75/m²) Solar field components and systems that maintain sufficient performance (lifetime ≥30 years) in terms of total optical error (≤3 mrad in calm winds, ≤4 mrad in windy conditions), wind loads (≥35 mph operational, ≥85 mph survival), and which minimize the time for total system installation and commissioning (≤9 months), and substantially reduce maintenance cost and water consumption (≤50% reduction) at a total installed cost ≤$75/m²
  • Polymeric or thin-glass reflectors with high-reflectivity (≥95% specular) and durability
  • High-performance selective coatings for reflectors (enhanced reflectivity, abrasion resistance, anti-soiling) or receivers (high absorptivity, low emissivity)
  • Novel non-imaging collectors
  • High-temperature (≥650°C), high-absorptivity (≥95%) solar receiver materials and designs capable of operation over many thermal cycles (≥10,000) and stable in air
  • Novel, high-temperature (≥800°C) heat transfer fluids
  • High-temperature (≥650°C), low-cost (≤15/kWhth) thermal or thermochemical storage materials and systems (≥95% exergetic efficiency) compatible with advanced fluids and cycles
  • High-efficiency power cycles (≥50% net thermal to electric)
  • High-temperature hardware (heat exchangers, pumps, valves, etc.) compatible with advanced power cycles and heat transfer fluids
  • Innovative, low-to-no water O&M techniques
  • Novel CSP components and systems.
  • Thermal desalination techniques that can use concentrating solar thermal heat input above 250°C and are either high-efficiency (< 10 kWhth/m3) and low-cost (<$0.50/m3) or can generate fresh water, with zero liquid discharge for < $1.00/m3.

S-505 Photovoltaic Materials, Devices, and Modules

Possible Disciplines: Materials Science and Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Applied Physics, Physics, Chemistry

In photovoltaic system hardware, serious materials challenges remain in many commercial and near commercial technologies. Research projects are sought in applied science to improve performance and drive down costs of photovoltaic materials, devices, and modules. Below are some questions and areas of interest:

  • Fundamental understanding of mechanisms of degradation in PV devices. Development of models based on fundamental physics and material properties to predict PV device degradation able to predict device lifetime with material based input parameters and stress conditions, and to enable shorter testing time and high confidence data.
  • Methods that can be used to recycle modules and related components when PV modules reach end of life.
  • Approaches to reduce the gap between module and cell efficiencies aiming to reach single junction module efficiencies of 25% or multi-junction module efficiencies of 40%.
  • New multi-junction solar cell architectures and designs that would result in higher efficiency cells.
  • Earth abundant PV materials (absorber, TCO, etc.) to enable TW level of deployment.
  • Novel ways of charge separation and extraction, light trapping, or device design that could outperform a p-n junction architecture.
  • New module architectures and innovative non-cell, module components that enable higher module efficiency, lower cost and/or improved reliability.
  • Development of new probing techniques to overcome material limitations to get to higher PV device efficiency. Scalable low-cost measurement and characterization methods for cell and modules during fabrication that could later become one of the standard in-line metrology tools on the production line.