Federal grant funds Brown University research aimed at cutting costs for solar

A $1.5 MILLION grant through the U.S. Department of Energy will fund research at Brown University aimed at furthering use of perovskite as a cheaper alternative for solar arrays. Pictured are Brown University professor Nitin Padture, right, who will be leading the research along with fellow researcher and assistant professor Yuanyuan Zhou, left. / COURTESY BROWN UNIVERSITY

PROVIDENCE – Picture a single strand of human hair. Now, picture a material that is one five-hundredth as thin as that strand of hair.

It’s hard to imagine how this ultra-thin and fragile material known as perovskite could withstand the heat, humidity and other natural forces of an outdoor solar farm.

But, in the words of Brown University Professor and Director of the Institute for Molecular & Nanoscale Innovation Nitin P. Padture, perovskite “absorbs light like gangbusters.”

It’s also cheaper to make than the silicon typically used in solar cells now, offering the promise to dramatically reduce costs for solar projects if the now exclusively laboratory substance can be fine-tuned and commercialized.

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The U.S. Department of Energy on March 25 announced $128 million in funding for research to lower costs and improve performance of solar energy technologies, including $40 million dedicated to perovskite research and development. The funding comes in conjunction with the ambitious goal of slashing the costs for utility-scale solar arrays, currently an average of 4.6 cents-per-kilowatt-hour, to 2 cents-per-kilowatt hour by 2030.

Brown University received a $1.5 million grant which will go to Padture and a team of researchers to continue their work on perovskites, which began in 2012 under a National Science Foundation grant.

Specifically, the latest funding will allow Padture to look into ways to make perovskite sturdier and durable enough to eventually be used on large-scale solar projects. 

“Reliability is really the next hurdle in this technology,” he said, explaining how the ultra-thin material can crack under pressure or degrade from exposure to water, humidity or even oxygen.

Exactly how to perovskite practical to use in an solar farm meant to last for several decades is unclear, but Padture envisions creating “molecular glues” that can bind the layers of perovskite together to make them tougher and more durable – with the added challenge of not detracting from its ability to absorb sunlight.

The three-year grant, which begins July 1, is not likely to bring this technology from the lab to commercial use immediately. 

Garrett Nilsen, the DOE’s solar energy technologies office deputy director, said he hopes the department’s funding will allow perovskite to come to market by the end of the decade. But it’s still a key part of efforts to reach ambitious renewable energy goals, while also holding the potential to stimulate job creation, both through installation of solar projects and manufacturing of the material itself, Nilsen said.

Having Brown play a role in this burgeoning technology certainly can’t help with local renewable energy goals, Padture said. But at least one local solar developer isn’t counting on the still-experimental technology to bring major changes to his business.

Mike Lucini, vice president of ISM Solar Developer LLC, said research and development, while beneficial, doesn’t do much for the East Providence-based solar developer’s bottom-line in the near term.

He also pointed out that siting issues and land availability, more than cost, are the biggest barriers to increasing solar development in Rhode Island. 

“Of course we always want to be able to sell solar at lower costs,” he said. “But the projects are pretty economical as-is.”

Matt Ursillo, director of development for Green Development LLC, offered a different take. Costs, while perhaps not as prohibitive as siting issues in Rhode Island, are still an important piece of the puzzle to accelerate renewable energy projects and in turn, participation among consumers and ratepayers.

“We’re trying to compete against a very well-established technology,” he said of the fossil fuel industry. “Driving down costs which affects what people will pay for their energy…is massive.”

While Rhode Island does not have utility-scale solar arrays to compare to the current national average costs, its prices for residential and smaller-scale commercial systems rank as the second and fifth-highest in the country, respectively, according to a 2020 report by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory based on 2019 data.

R.I. Energy Commissioner Nicholas Ucci pointed to existing incentive programs through R.I. Commerce Corp. and National Grid Rhode Island as ways the state is driving to drive demand while lowering cost for solar projects. He could not comment on the federal funding for perovskite technology, but expressed support for efforts to “create pathways to secure sufficient renewables in a manner that is … sustainable for consumers and ratepayers and the environment.”

Nancy Lavin is a PBN staff writer. You may reach her at Lavin@PBN.com.

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