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For Solar: Disruption Is a Good Thing

One of the headliners at Solar Power International’s Monday General Session was Dr. Cheryl Martin, Deputy Director of the U.S. Energy Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), a program that seeks to clear pathways for new energy technologies to enter the market. Dr. Martin spoke to before her keynote to offer some insights into how the ARPA-E functions and to shed some light on the cool, new innovations coming down the pike.

First of all, don’t expect to see new ARPA-E-funded technology hit Main Street anytime soon.  The program funds “second and third generation technology,” said Martin. If a new technology proves to be viable by passing all of its milestone markers, it might be something that the industry will see 10 years or so down the road, she said.  On the other hand, Martin acknowledges that with innovation often you can’t make timeline predictions.  “That’s the great thing about innovation,” she said.

Martin mentioned two innovative technologies that ARPA-E is working with at the moment. First is the application of fiber optics to solar technology and second is the ARPA-E’s FOCUS program, which seeks technology that supports “full-spectrum optimized and conversion and utilization of sunlight (FOCUS).” Martin explained in layman’s terms that this means ARPA-E seeks research that looks beyond photovoltaics and solar thermal technology, instead focusing on the full spectrum of sunlight, “so that you get away from the challenges of just PV or the challenges of just CSP,” she said. Another piece of the FOCUS funding opportunity looks for technologies that can offer new ways of harnessing energy storage through both the heat and the light in solar energy.

ARPA-E funds R&D being performed in three different scenarios: research labs, small companies and large corporations. In order to get funding, researchers with an idea apply to the program and, if accepted, are allowed to make their pitches before the deciding committee, which offers them feedback on their ideas and ultimately decides if their research will be awarded a grant. 

When considering new technology, explained Martin, the smart people at ARPA-E ask themselves: “If it works, will it matter?”  In other words, the organization is looking for technology that pushes the envelope beyond what seems possible today, seeking to create sea change in solar technology for tomorrow.

SEPA (Solar Energy Power Association) CEO Julia Hamm also spoke about disruption and how that relates to the solar industry of tomorrow in her speech at the opening session, reminding us that sometimes when re-organization is taking place, things can seem worse before they get better.  She pointed to the net-metering battles taking place in states across the U.S. and how sensational headlines are being published across the country claiming that distributed solar may soon spell the end of the traditional utility as we know it.

Hamm brought up the telecom analogy that is sometimes used in solar power discussions – explaining how, “as consumers have gravitated to the cell phone, the land line telephone has in a fairly short time fallen into near obsolescence.” Offering reassurance to utility reps, Hamm pointed out that “companies like AT&T and Verizon have deep roots in the telephone and telecommunications industry.”  Smart utilities won’t go away, but rather will “make the conversion to making a successful business with a new technology,” like the “telephone dinosaurs of the past,” did.  The question, she asked, was “can electric utilities do the same?”

And even though disruption can cause unease for those being disrupted it’s important that solar industry stakeholders plan to be successful.  That was the advice offered by ARPA-E’s Martin to solar entrepreneurs but it applies to utilities as well.  “The reality is that if you don’t plan for your success, you are actually planning for your failure,” she said. 

SEIA (Solar Energy Industries Association) CEO Rhone Resch also pointed to the forces working against solar, and gave a word of caution: “tighten your chin straps, folks, we’ve got a lot of big battles ahead of us.”

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