The Science and Technology Research Partnership (STRP) is a funding program for solar energy research offered by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO), in collaboration with the Minority-Serving Institution (MSI) STEM Research and Development Consortium (MSRDC). STRP supports the Biden Administration’s priorities to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM fields and fund innovative clean energy research and development.

“One of the goals of the Solar Energy Technologies Office in creating the Science and Technology Research Partnership with MSRDC was to introduce underrepresented minority students to solar energy research. Designing a program that particularly targeted undergraduate research at Minority Serving Institutions was strategic because these universities and colleges enroll high percentages of underrepresented minority undergraduates. We hope to excite their interest and retain them in the solar energy research community, building capacity at MSIs so that DOE can achieve our mission through diverse ideas and talents,” said Dr. Marie Mapes, program officer, SETO.

On April 14, 2022, SETO announced that 8 projects were awarded a total of $3.2 million. The selected institutions represent several categories of MSIs: Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, and Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions. The projects span two years and include career and performance training for team members as part of their award. The projects expect to wrap up in October 2024.

SETO Research Trainees Engagement Meeting

A student presents a poster showing their work funded through MSRDC.
Students present a poster showcasing their work, which was funded through MSRDC.

In January 2024, undergraduates through postdoc students participating in STRP projects coalesced for the SETO Research Trainees Engagement Meeting at the University of District Columbia to share their research progress, learn from each other, and network. Esteemed speakers representing academic, government and non-profit organizations presented on topics including clean energy career options, soft skill development, regional policies and workforce implications, and incorporating research identity and community needs in research.

The event’s organization was spearheaded by Dr. Simone B. Soso, assistant director of research & workforce development at MSRDC. Reflecting on the importance of the collaboration with DOE, she said, "Partnering with the Department of Energy provides the over 80 MSI MSRDC Network Members with an opportunity to develop competitive, innovative, and operational solutions for the field of solar energy. The researchers participating in this work are provided professional development training, technical guidance, and financial assistance from MSRDC to ensure they have the tools to manage and execute their solar projects. The institutional and capacity support provided to the MSIs makes for a unique and effective programmatic effort to increase the representation of MSIs in solar technologies."

Aside from offering students practical advice such as how volunteer work can enhance your resume and how fellowships offer a path to public sector employment, the event left a deeper impression for many. One student researcher shared that networking with other STEM students like her helped boost her confidence. “More broadly, I confirmed that my subject matter knowledge does actually stand up to my peers and that I can indeed perform competitively in the engineering career path. I feel like imposter syndrome runs strong in this field, so it was quite reassuring.”


Topic Area 1: Photovoltaic Hardware Performance, Reliability, and Characterization


Project Name: Development of Efficient and Stable Perovskite Solar Cells with Tin Oxide as an Electron Transport Layer
Principal Investigator: Hongmei Dang
Location: Washington, D.C.
DOE Award Amount: $400,000
Project Summary: This project aims to increase the stability and efficiency of perovskite photovoltaic (PV) cells by changing the material used for the electron transport layer (ETL), which facilitates the transfer of electricity from the perovskite material to the metal electrodes leading out of the PV cell. The team will replace the conventional titanium dioxide (TiO2) ETL in these cells with a tin oxide (SnO2) ETL, developing low-temperature fabrication methods for this layer that make it stable and relatively defect-free. They will also use advanced characterization techniques to understand how perovskite PV cells with an SnO2 ETL break down in order to increase their stability. The knowledge and techniques they develop will be used to create teaching materials and expand collaboration opportunities that will benefit the next generation of the clean energy workforce.

Topic Area 2: Energy Resilience in Communities


Project Name: Enhancing Community Energy Resilience through Solar Energy and Energy Storage Sharing
Principal Investigator: Zhijie (Sasha) Dong
Location: Houston, TX
DOE Award Amount: $400,000
Project Summary: Major grid disturbances, such as natural disasters and planned blackouts, cause energy resilience challenges for vulnerable communities across the country. To address these challenges, this project will develop a sharing platform to promote the adoption of solar energy and energy storage by vulnerable communities to improve their energy resilience and ensure reliable energy supply during power failure. The team will partner with local communities to develop a system that can provide affordable solar and energy storage service through cost sharing, with no need for individual device management. To accomplish this, the team will identify the technical and economic bottlenecks to energy resilience, assess metrics such as cost efficiency, reliability, and equity, and find ways to accommodate vulnerable communities through mutual assistance.


Project Name: California Public Utilities Public Safety Power Shutoffs Impact on Disadvantaged Communities
Principal Investigators: John McMillan and Erlinde Cornelis
Location: San Diego, CA
DOE Award Amount: $400,000
Project Summary: This project will focus on the intersection of poverty and the effects of climate change by examining how disadvantaged communities have been impacted by and responded to California utility Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS). Mitigating PSPS impacts, such as physical and mental health, food security and access, and financial well-being, requires resource deployment at the community level to accelerate resilience from the bottom up. Using data from California utilities, policy makers, regulators, and community organizations, the research team will develop multiple case studies that will highlight and mitigate PSPS challenges that disadvantaged communities face and investigate the technical and non-technical resiliency solutions being enacted or envisioned as a response to prolonged power outages.

Topic Area 3: Reducing the Non-Hardware Costs of Solar – Analysis, Tools, and Data Resources and Supporting a Just Transition to 100% Renewable Energy Futures in Small Cities


Project Name: Teamed Internships: Innovative Education for Solar Technicians and Engineers 
Principal Investigator: Gregory Ogden
Location: Tucson, AZ
DOE Award Amount: $400,000
Project Summary: Rapid deployment of clean energy will require a substantial increase in climate- and sustainability-focused workers, as well as reduced installation and operating costs in the solar industry sector. The University of Arizona has partnered with Pima Community College, local businesses, and utilities to develop the “Teamed Internship and Certificate Program for Solar Technicians and Engineers” program, which aims to educate underrepresented groups about solar technology and promote emerging career opportunities in clean energy. The program addresses perceived and ideological differences between technicians and engineers and the differences between operations and management through various types of classroom education and field experience.

Topic Area 4: Manufacturing and Competitiveness – Applied Solar Technology and Perovskite Benchmarking


Project Name: Semi-transparent Bifacial Agrivoltaic System with Machine Learning
Principal Investigator: Gowtham Mohan
Location: Albuquerque, NM
DOE Award Amount: $400,000
Project Summary: The new field of agrivoltaics—combining agriculture with photovoltaic (PV) systems—has only been effective for a limited group of crops due to the high amount of shading under the solar panels. To address this challenge, this project will develop an agrivoltaic system using semi-transparent, plastic bifacial solar panels. Since these panels are semi-transparent, they will let more light through to the crops than traditional solar panels. They can also use light reflected from the plants to produce more electricity since they are bifacial. A machine learning model will be developed to predict the performance of the agrivoltaic system, and these predictions will be used to improve the system. The team will evaluate both the PV system performance and the agricultural crop yields.

Topic Area 5: Concentrating Solar-Thermal Power Technology and Cost Improvements


Project Name: Development and Demonstration of Innovative Compact Heat Exchangers for Concentrated Solar Power Plants
Principal Investigator: Minghui Chen
Location: Albuquerque, NM
DOE Award Amount: $400,000
Project Summary: Printed circuit steam generators (PCSGs) have the potential to dramatically reduce cost and improve reliability in concentrating solar-thermal power plants. This project will design, model, and test PCSGs in high-temperature molten salt-to-water and steam applications. In addition to gathering robust performance data for these systems, the team will generate new knowledge about their material strain, stress, and creep-fatigue behaviors, boiling behavior in both mini- or micro-channels, and flow oscillations and instabilities.


Project Name: Development of a Magnetic Shaft Coupling for a Dish CSP-Supercritical Carbon Dioxide Power Generation System
Principal Investigator: Yahia Baghzouz
Location: Las Vegas, NV
DOE Award Amount: $400,000
Project Summary: This project team will build and test a working small-scale concentrating solar-thermal power (CSP) system prototype that has the potential to significantly boost power conversion efficiency and reliability while lowering cost. The project team will develop an innovative magnetic coupler design to improve the efficiency of the connection between the power turbine and electric generator. This technology has the potential to significantly improve the performance of high-efficiency, small-scale, modular CSP power cycles that use supercritical carbon dioxide to drive a heat engine. These improvements in cost and efficiency can  enable distributed CSP power systems to contribute to the widespread deployment of solar energy.


Project Name: Comprehensive Consideration of System-level Thermal Transients in Optimized Particle-Based Concentrating Solar-Thermal Power
Principal Investigator: Juan Ordonez
Location: Tallahassee, FL
DOE Award Amount: $400,000
Project Summary: This project will develop advanced models for innovative solid-particle-based thermal energy storage technologies. These models will enable enhanced operational strategies for concentrating solar-thermal power and pumped thermal energy storage (PTES) systems by incorporating realistic physical models into existing tools. In collaboration with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the project team will explore a variety of configurations to reduce costs and de-risk these technologies to maximize their value and usefulness on grids with multiple renewable energy technologies.

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