DOE Picks 13 Solar Firms for Stimulus Cash, Seeks New Proposals

After some concern that the solar industry would have to wait to receive stimulus money, the dollars look ready to start flowing — at least those that were set aside for startups. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory on Tuesday said it’s already selected a group of 13 early-stage technologies for its PV Technology Pre-Incubator program.

The companies, which are developing technologies aimed at reducing solar-panel manufacturing costs to less than $1 per watt, are now eligible to negotiate for awards of up to $500,000 each, totaling some $6 million. Of course, that’s not yet money in the bank, and it isn’t a whole lot of cash, all told. But it’s a start.

Nearly half of the startups selected for the pre-incubator program are developing thin-film technologies, in which thin films of chemicals are deposited on substrates. That’s a strong sign of confidence for thin-film technologies from the national lab, but also could signal a crowded field of competitors in the future. First Solar (s FSLR) has been the most successful thin-film manufacturer so far, manufacturing 1 gigawatt of cadmium-telluride films as of March. One pre-incubator winner, Bolingbrook, Ill.-based EPIR Technologies, plans to use its award to develop a more efficient cadmium-telluride cell for concentrating solar.

Two other startups, Ascent Solar Technologies and International Solar Electric Technology, are developing copper-indium-gallium-diselenide cells, which have demonstrated the potential for higher efficiencies than cadmium-tellurides in the labs, while Vanguard Solar, TiSol and Lightwave Power are working on other thin-film technologies.

But the government isn’t putting all of its solar eggs in one basket. Silicon-based technologies and concentrating-photovoltaic technologies also got a nod, as well as multijunction and organic-solar technologies.

Intel (s intc) spinoff SpectraWatt, Santa Clara, Calif.-based Crystal Solar and Lexington, Mass.-based startup 1366 Technologies won awards for silicon-based technologies, while concentrating-photovoltaic awardees include Kensington, Calif.-based Banyan Energy and Durham, N.C.-based Semprius.

Get ready to see another rush of applications for government solar grants, as the solicitations keep coming. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory said today it is seeking new proposals for its Photovoltaic Technology Incubator program, which aims to speed the commercialization of early-stage technologies into full-scale production. The lab plans to distribute about $9 million of stimulus funding to subcontracts of up to $3 million each, resulting in 5-10 gigawatts of new U.S. solar capacity.

The program is limited to small companies with demonstration or prototype cells, panels or process devices and a plan to enter the market by 2012. Applicants for the incubator program are expected to reach prices near those for conventional electricity. The program has set a target cost of 9-18 cents per watt-hour — depending on the market — by 2010, and 5-10 cents per watt-hour by 2015.

Companies that plan to apply will need to fill out their applications quickly. Applications are due July 13, and a web conference to address questions about the solicitation has been scheduled for June 16. Applicants must submit any further technical questions about the solicitation by June 23.

The program is looking for technology improvements in many areas, but some of the high-impact goals mentioned in the solitication include lowering the cost of panels — including components, interconnection, packaging and manufacturing — or improving their efficiency; improving the reliability of inverters or system manufacturing and assembly; and lowering the costs of system engineering and integration, as well as installation and maintenance.