Some of the money goes to companies that already have a prototype and need to lift it to a pilot-scale operation. And some of the money goes to companies that only have a concept but want to turn it into a prototype.
The start-ups' proposals are reviewed by an external committee. The most promising ideas warrant a site visit.
|Abound Solar, a graduate of NREL's PV Technology Incubator program, has greatly ramped up its production of cadmium-telluride solar cells at its manufacturing facility in Longmont, Colorado. Here, two operators hold up a module while a third gives it a final inspection.
"We're looking to verify what they put in their proposals," Symko-Davies said. "Do they actually have a prototype? Sometimes there's a tendency to boost up the proposal. How are they going to get from point A to Z?"
NREL helps the companies overcome R&D hurdles quickly. If a company has a breakthrough technology, but its super-thin wafer keeps bowing or can't make contact with the substrate, NREL experts can help them toward a solution.
Symko-Davies said she is optimistic about the future of solar energy in the United States. "If we do it right, there are companies that can actually make this happen."
She points to PV Technology Incubator graduate Innovalight, which invented a liquid form of silicon, Silicon Ink, which uses an inkjet approach to depositing layers on solar cells. The innovation dramatically improves the performance of solar cells and can boost profits for a typical American manufacturer by 20 percent. Five of the world's leading solar cell producers have signed licenses to use Silicon Ink in their production lines.