A Competition of Ideas

American entrepreneurs provide dynamic solutions to real-world energy challenges, while they often face challenges of their own to bring products to market. During the early phases of product development, entrepreneurs are faced with ensuing stages of protecting intellectual property, testing and validation, manufacturing at scale, and building the distribution networks essential to a sound business model.

 The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy designed the American-Made Challenges to inspire these innovators, encouraging them to push forward with ideas that address important energy and resource issues. Challenge winners are awarded cash prizes to tackle barriers to manufacturing at scale, and offered a connection to the American-Made Network which allows energy entrepreneurs to tap into interdisciplinary resources for problem-solving support to develop and commercialize their ideas and products.

When it launched in January 2018, the American-Made Challenges program encompassed six competitions, focusing on marine power desalination and solar desalinization, lithium-battery recycling, energy savings at U.S. manufacturing plants, ocean-observing technologies, and pumped-storage hydropower.

Since the launch, ten additional competitions have been introduced, addressing solar energy innovations (with four rounds of prizes), water resource recovery, geothermal manufacturing, advanced manufacturing of hydropower systems, fish protection, geotechnical hydropower foundations, and bolstering regional innovation clusters.

Where Are They Now?

The driving idea of the American-Made Challenges has been to fast-track innovations, move solutions toward the marketplace, and ultimately create new domestic jobs. So how is it working? Can the strategy help shrink development timelines?

There is strong evidence that the answer is yes. Three early success stories are demonstrating the impact of prize challenges and show the progress made by a few of the winning teams.

  • Pumped-storage hydropower (PSH), by far the largest source of energy storage, will become even more essential as variable renewable resources are increasingly integrated into the grid. Team Wittmeyer – a winner of The Furthering Advancements to Shorten Time (FAST) Commissioning for Pumped-Storage Hydropower Prize – answered the call for ideas to shrink the construction and commissioning times and capital costs of PSH systems. The team’s idea was to inspire a renaissance in steel dams as cost-effective alternatives to concrete or embankment dams. Although steel dams are not new, the technology has not been employed in more than a century. The team, based at the Southwest Research Institute, developed a prototype modular design and modular construction method for steel dams that is technically feasible, offers potentially significant cost savings, and may reduce the time required to construct a reservoir by 50%. Working with the National Laboratories, the team has refined their structural design, developed tools for estimating required amounts of steel, and created a model for estimating structure costs. The team’s modular approach has the potential to make PSH an attractive alternative to non-sustainable gas peaking plants in managing daily solar generation swings.
  • Integrating solar into factory-built homes is what Phase3 Photovoltaics, a winner of the Solar Prize Round 1, does. The team customizes photovoltaic (PV) system packages, for high-volume, pre-manufactured homes, that can be delivered at a cost per watt almost 60% lower than that of traditional installations. The competition’s pilot requirement pushed the team to engage with their customers—manufactured-home builders—early, which helped them realize that their major concern was ensuring the homes could be safely transported. Phase3 used a truck to tow a prototype home over different-quality roads, through various weather conditions, gathering data to demonstrate the transportability of their PV kit. Working with the American-Made Network, the team conducted market studies and broke down several barriers, including stress testing and financial modeling. Phase3 is pilot-testing with major homebuilder partners, developing workforce training, ensuring roofing construction methods meet loading requirements, and addressing other challenges. Today, Phase3 Photovoltaics has several function demonstration homes in the field, even with people living in them, and is working with its partners to bring their modular home to the market.
  • Producing a more stable and reliable solar module is the aim of the other winner of the Solar Prize Round 1, Solar Inventions. This team created a new design that effectively divides a PV cell into multiple sections without physically breaking it, preventing hot spots and improving efficiency and safety. Solar Inventions developed, built, and tested the configurable current cell (C3) prototype with university partners, including Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of North Carolina Charlotte, and private facilities. Leveraging the National Laboratory facilities and expertise as part of the competition, the team was able to get independent verification of their C3 technology’s performance under a wide variety of simulated conditions.  Solar Inventions has launched its C3 panels, acquired customers, and is working to secure a licensing deal as it awaits patent approval.

DOE recently announced the winners of the American-Made Solar Prize Round 3 and the 20 semifinalist teams selected to advance to the next phase of Round 4.

Each of these teams has taken a different approach to investing prize dollars and leveraging the American-Made Network as they have tackled technical hurdles and furthered their business concept. They exemplify the resilience of American entrepreneurship in bringing fresh thinking to our Nation’s energy and resource challenges.

Daniel R Simmons
Daniel R Simmons, former Assistant Secretary for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy
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