Dating back to the start of World War II, national laboratories have pursued answers to our most pressing energy questions. Today, the leader of the Department of Energy’s advancements in solar photovoltaic (PV) technology is the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). While NREL was not officially designated a national laboratory until 1991, it has roots that date back to the late 1970s as the Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI).
In the wake of the Arab oil embargo of 1973 and Emergency Petroleum Allocation Act of 1973, President Jimmy Carter’s administration made solar technology a priority. In 1977, the same year the Department of Energy was founded, and just a couple weeks into his presidency, Carter sat down for his inaugural Report to the Nation. He led this informal chat with an emphasis on renewable energy and specifically solar sources. Just a few months later, SERI commenced its operations in Golden, Colorado.
Developments of Solar Research
Created during the same period, the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) was tasked with reporting on the solar program. The goal of the administration was to further the commercialization of solar PV technology. While the laboratories made headways towards the acceptance of solar power, interest in the technology waned during the 80s and 90s until a subsequent oil crisis in the early 2000s. As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 in response to a global recession, large government subsidies were granted to the solar industry. In 2011 and 2012, there were 345 or more solar-related research and development initiatives supported by six separate government agencies.
While NREL is the nation’s renewable energy research leader, it is joined by 12 other Department of Energy laboratories. NREL researchers use bottom-up economic cost modeling in order to accurately estimate the costs that are associated with methods and materials in solar manufacturing and installation. These estimations will help identify the highest-impact areas for the national laboratories to research. One such high-impact area is the advancement of concentrating solar power (CSP) technology. For instance, Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory is working on methods that would keep mirrors free from dust. Not only would a self-cleaning coating allow the mirrors to better reflect the sun’s rays and cut down on water and labor costs associated with mirror washing.
Cost Effectiveness of PV Energy
Over the course of nearly 50 years the NREL has helped make PV energy the cost effective clean energy source it is today. Today, PV research and development at NREL focuses on three aspects. The first is boosting the conversion efficiencies of solar cells. The second is lowering the cost of those solar cells as well as modules and systems. The third is to improve PV components’ and systems’ long-term reliability. New technology shows promise for the further innovation of solar research.
Because of governmental organizations like the DOE and research centers like NREL, solar power will likely be the most affordable energy source within a decade and a half. With this level of government support and growing public acceptance, it is unsurprising that it is only a matter of time before solar energy becomes the main power source of the world.
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