Despite the fact that solar electricity has been around for decades, the technology still has tremendous potential for improvement in both cost and performance. I recently had the opportunity to sit in on the NREL Growth Forum in Denver, Colorado, where I heard a few solar startups give their pitches for additional funding before a panel of venture capitalists. Even after accounting for aggressive device performance predictions and wildly optimistic revenue projections, I saw concrete ideas that could produce real progress in the effort to make solar more economical.
Two of the companies, NextGen Solar and Teleos Solar, focused on thin film PV. While Teleos is striving to bring down the costs of CIGS solar cell manufacturing through an innovative rapid-laser-melt-anneal process, NextGen is breaking new ground with a whole new chemistry consisting of a three-dimensional thin film made of conductive organic and inorganic nanomaterials. I think this pair of companies nicely captures the idea that even though revolutionary breakthroughs like the use of a completely new solar material are actively being pursued, they are not the only option on the table. There are still lots of ways we can make existing technologies better - the example here is for CIGS, but a quick review of the many solar startups out there quickly reveals work being done on CdTe and silicon as well.
Another two companies, b2u Solar and Terrajoule, presented concentrating solar thermal technologies (no, not everyone has given up on solar thermal). B2u is producing process heat for the industrial and commercial sectors with a technology that performs well in diffuse sky conditions, and Terrajoule is pursuing the challenging CSP with thermal storage market using a steam-driven piston engine. I'm not sure how ready the market is to embrace a new CSP plus storage player, but I think the process heat market is one worth keeping an eye on, and it is good to see innovative companies going after that opportunity.
Despite concerns about trade wars, entrenched and well funded opposition, and trying economic times, I came away from the Growth Forum optimistic that the solar industry is on a path to unsubsidized grid parity or better - the question now is how soon will we get there?