A tiny Semprius HCPV cell, mounted on an interposer. Each cell is only 0.6mm on one side. | Photo courtesy of Semprius
A prototype of the module that will be manufactured at the new plant in Henderson, North Caroline. | Photo courtesy of Semprius
The Semprius RD&D system in Tucson, Arizona. | Photo courtesy of Semprius
Energy Department-enabled innovation made Tuesday, July 19, a good day for North Carolina.
Entrepreneurs from Durham-based solar startup Semprius teamed with Governor Bev Purdue to announce the company’s plan to build a new high-tech manufacturing facility in Henderson. The factory is expected to create more than 250 full-time jobs over the next five years, which is a particular boon for Henderson, where the county unemployment rate reached 13.3% in May. This follows on the heels of news that Siemens recently participated with others in a $20 million investment in Semprius. Siemens took a 16% stake in the company – a vote of confidence from a global engineering giant with years of success in the solar industry.
None of this comes as a surprise to those of us who have followed Semprius’ progress as a pioneer in the design and fabrication of high concentration photovoltaic (HCPV) solar modules. The company’s story provides a case-study example for how federally-funded research and development sparks job-creation for Americans in a global growth industry.
Spun out of Lemelson-MIT award winner John Rogers’ research lab at the University of Illinois, Semprius employs a breakthrough semiconductor manufacturing technique called micro-transfer printing, originally invented with Energy Department Office of Science support. This core technology has a broad range of potential applications -- from improving LED lighting to increasing computer hard drive capacity to making tiny sensors for next-generation medical devices. It enables Semprius to combine extremely small solar cells -- about one half the surface area of a pin head -- with low-cost, highly efficient lenses that concentrate the sun’s energy more than 1100 times.
Semprius first explored the idea of using micro-transfer printing for HCPV with the help of a 2007 “Next Gen” grant from the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. The company’s progress has been astounding since then; it earned Semprius one of four spots in the 2010 class of the PV Incubator Program along with recent record-breakers Alta Devices and Solar Junction, which also closed a funding round recently. Like its peers, Semprius has benefited greatly from its participation in the Incubator. “Programs like the PV Incubator allow you to develop quicker, implement quicker and go to market quicker,” as Semprius CEO Joe Carr recently told me. Access to key tools and personnel at the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) has helped the company optimize both its tiny cell (NREL-confirmed 41.7% ) and its module.
This news adds Semprius to a growing list of PV Incubator participant companies that have attracted significant private investment and are plowing it into new manufacturing operations in communities like Henderson across the U.S. Between 2007 and 2010, the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy invested $50 million in the Incubator for 20 solar startups like Semprius. Private investment in those firms now totals more than $1.3 billion, a 25-to-1 multiple.
These companies already employ more than 1,200 people in good hi-tech jobs, and that number is poised to grow rapidly as new manufacturing facilities come online. Six of those companies -- 1366, Abound, Calisolar, PrimeStar (acquired by GE), Solopower, and now Semprius -- have publicly announced plans to hire more than 3,800 full-time workers for new factories being built here in America.
The Department’s SunShot Initiative investments are not only making solar energy systems cost competitive with traditional sources of energy by the end of the decade; programs like the PV Incubator catalyze market support for leading companies like Semprius that are putting Americans to work.