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One potential problem with going solar across America is that the up-front costs of installing solar panels are often too high for the average consumer. Though panels can produce mounds of energy savings over a long period of time, the expense of installation is still too high for many. However, stimulus funding awarded to a small, Maryland-based business with six employees — AccuStrata Inc. — by the U.S. Department of Energy under the Recovery Act is helping the company develop technology to eliminate such barriers.

AccuStrata was awarded its third Small Business Innovation Research grant of $150,000 in December.  These grants will help the company increase the efficiency of solar panels and save manufacturers millions of dollars by reducing the number of lower-quality panels produced in a batch — cost savings that can then be passed on to consumers.

“Currently, manufacturers have no way of knowing how the [solar] films are growing inside their deposition chambers, at least until the entire film is deposited,” George Atanasoff, president of AccuStrata, says. “We are giving the manufacturer the ability to know, in real time, what the quality of the film is as it is deposited and how this will affect the final panel quality.”

The company’s prototype system uses fiber-optic sensors that monitor the reflectance and other qualities of the films that will end up on solar panels. AccuStrata believes its system will increase panel efficiency by as much as 15 percent, meaning, if only 25 percent of the thin-film solar manufacturing market adopts the technology, it could save key industry players $1 billion by 2013.

Editor's note: this story was updated on July 8, 2010 with the following information:

• Atanasoff says the technology targets both film solar panels and traditional polysilicon solar cells.

• AccuStrata's prototype was recently tested in manufacturing and the company received "very positive" feedback from customers, Atanasoff says.