In 1975, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) decided to harness the power of the sun, launching the Solar Energy Research Institute, which later became the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). Over the subsequent 40 years, DOE, its Solar Energy Technologies Office, and the national laboratories have engaged with innovators, businesses, and entrepreneurs to channel one of our planet’s greatest resources into sustainable, clean, and cost-effective energy.

The Opportunity: Reducing Costs and Making Solar Cells More Efficient

Just 20 years ago, both private sector and government struggled to make solar cells efficient and affordable, finance them affordably, and install systems quickly. But, today, solar photovoltaic (PV) technology is the fastest-growing energy source for renewable generation. Solar panels are cheaper and more efficient than ever, with multiple financing options and quick installations. So, how did we make so much progress?

The Pathway: Investing in Advanced Solar Energy Techniques and Materials

DOE and the national laboratories—particularly NREL and Sandia—have worked closely with the solar industry to help solve its biggest challenges. The national laboratories continue to play a pivotal role in laying the scientific groundwork needed for product optimization: providing important platforms for product testing, pioneering important research on reliability, standards, and cost, and serving as a catalyst for long-term growth. These actions enabled solar companies to take their technologies to the next level, making PV solar systems more efficient and cost competitive.

One early initiative was NREL’s and DOE’s Photovoltaic Manufacturing Technology (PVMat) program, a cost-share program that enabled companies to improve module manufacturing processes and equipment and accelerate cost reductions. Overall, the project reduced manufacturing costs by more than 50% and created a substantial return on investment for both the U.S. government and the industries involved.

Jim Noles, one of the early executives of solar giant First Solar, said, “The PVMat program, particularly the manufacturing line that was built in 1992, really allowed us to understand how we could do solar on a larger scale.”

As research and development has advanced, DOE’s current SunShot Initiative funds cooperative research, development, demonstration, and deployment projects that aim to drive the levelized cost of solar electricity down to $0.03 per kilowatt-hour for utility-scale solar by 2030. SunShot also works to open the door for greater adoption by facilitating grid integration and lowering market entry barriers.

In recent years, NREL has worked closely with all industry partners to develop and apply advanced techniques for boosting reliability. NREL also championed quality standards within the solar PV community in 2012—standards that are now recognized by the industry worldwide.

The Breakthrough: One Cell at a Time

The growth of solar has been more of an evolution than a revolution. In the early 1990s, NREL scientists researched cadmium telluride (CdTe) solar cells as a cheaper alternative to silicon in the manufacture of solar panels. With DOE support, NREL formed the CdTe National Team with universities and companies focused on pioneering solar energy. These included BP Solar, Solar Cells, Inc., and the Florida Corporation. NREL’s research validated that CdTe technology was capable of strong efficiencies and mass production. Solar Cells and the Florida Corporation merged into First Solar in 1999. Thin-film solar cells’ flexibility allow them to double as roof tiles or skylight glazing; First Solar quickly seized this opportunity and, consequently, an early competitive advantage.  

“Our decision to move into thin-film technology was supported by the knowledge on cadmium telluride solar cells that NREL provided us,” said Raffi Garbedian, chief technology officer of First Solar.

The Impact: Forecast, Sunny and Bright

Solar energy is now one of the fastest-growing industries in the United States and a major source of new jobs. According to a Solar Energy Industries Association report, the United States’ solar installed capacity has increased dramatically since 2008—from 1.2 gigawatts in 2008 to an estimated 31.6 gigawatts halfway through 2016, which is enough to power the equivalent of 6.2 million average-sized American homes. For the first time ever, solar beat out natural gas capacity additions in 2015, with solar supplying about one-third of all new electric generating capacity brought on-line in the U.S. These advancements have strong economic, environmental, and energy security impacts.

As for the future, Greg Wilson, co-director of the National Center for Photovoltaics at NREL, is convinced that grid integration and energy storage are the next major research frontiers. “Energy storage, and the simultaneous pursuit of high efficiency and low cost, will enable PV at a price point that is lower than traditional fossil fuels,” he said.

But, advances will not stop there.

“Solar panels are a small part of the whole system,” said Dr. Ajeet Rohatgi, a professor of photovoltaics at the Georgia Institute of Technology and founder of Atlanta, Georgia-based spin-out solar cell and module manufacturer Suniva. “Now, the balance of systems is an even bigger area than the efficiency of panels—for instance, how do you cut down installation costs, what happens to financing and insurance?”

Rohatgi and Wilson agree that in the future the United States will continue to maintain its leadership in solar energy, providing a unique competitive advantage.

“The winner of the solar power race will be the winner of the next wave of energy. The United States is so well-positioned to be a leader in this field—we’ve done so much of the groundwork already, and we just need to capitalize on our momentum,” said Wilson.