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Some Hints About Stealthy Solar Startup Alta Devices, Courtesy of DOE

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The Department of Energy announced $12 million in funding Wednesday for the development of cutting-edge, low-cost photovoltaic technology — and in the process pulled back the curtain a bit on the secretive solar startup Alta Devices. The stealth-mode company, which has funding from venture firms including Kleiner Perkins and Technology Partners, snagged a grant for up to $3 million today for work on low-cost, high-efficiency (more than 20 percent) photovoltaic modules with compound semiconductor materials.

While these funds come through the government’s Photovoltaic Technology Incubator Program — intended for early stage, pre-commercial tech — Alta Devices expects to enter the market as early as next year. According to this job posting for an executive position at the company, Alta make its thin film solar cells using manufacturing equipment that are “compatible” with rigid modules as well as roll-to-roll processing, and it’s keen on developing partnerships with electric utilities.

Compared to the DOE’s $36 billion in stimulus funds for clean power and energy efficiency projects ($10 million of the solar funds announced today come from the stimulus budget), and even compared to many venture capital plays in the solar sector, a $3 million government investment might seem skimpy. But the PV Incubator program will also give Alta Devices access to the handy toolbox of resources at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, or NREL, which could help it make the leap to pilot and commercial-scale manufacturing.

In a time when the outlook for solar looks rather volatile, support from Uncle Sam can give companies some breathing room. Today’s four PV Incubator awardees will each receive the full $3 million over 18 months only if they hit certain milestones. Still, a little funding can shift the playing field for early stage startups, even in the often capital intensive business of green energy technologies.

As Michael Sinkula, the co-founder and director of battery startup Envia Systems told us last fall after his company scored a $4 million grant from the DOE’s ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy) program, the government investment will allow it to expand its focus and pursue riskier R&D. For Massachusetts-based 1366 Technologies, a $33 million ARPA-E grant last year helped kickstart its effort to deliver a manufacturing revolution for solar power.

Also receiving funding in today’s round of PV Incubator awards is quiet Tetra Sun, a Saratoga, Calif.-based startup (neither Alta Devices or Tetra Sun operates a public web site). With the federal grant, Tetra Sun plans to develop what’s called “back surface passivation” for lower-cost crystalline silicon solar cells.

Solar Junction, a 3-year-old startup, and Durham, North Carolina-based Semprius, backed by firms including Applied Ventures, Arch Venture Partners and the CIA’s In-Q-Tel fund, also garnered awards for up to $3 million each under the PV Incubator program to develop cells for lower-cost concentrating photovoltaic (CPV) systems and a CPV receiver based on microcell technology, respectively.

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CPV photo courtesy of NREL