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Sandia Labs tapped again to lead national solar evaluation centers

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Solar engineer Joshua Stein works on one of several photovoltaic systems being evaluated for industry partners at Sandia National Laboratories in the U.S. Regional Test Centers program.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Sandia National Laboratories won a three-year renewal of a Department of Energy contract to manage the U.S. Regional Test Centers (RTCs), a network of five sites across the country where industry can assess the performance, reliability and economic viability of solar photovoltaic (PV) technologies. The program currently has more than 12 industry partners and 300 kilowatts of installed PV in different stages of development.

“These centers help demonstrate that products perform as predicted over time and in different climates, strengthening the bankability of emerging technologies and driving the market penetration of smarter, more efficient solar systems,” said Joshua Stein, the Sandia solar systems engineer who heads the RTC program.

It was launched at Sandia and at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Denver in 2012 and is funded by the Energy Department’s SunShot Initiative, which seeks to make solar energy cost competitive with other forms of electricity by the end of the decade. The number of sites has grown from three to five, in New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Florida and Vermont.

The RTCs collect data — managed through a common database — from PV and concentrated PV systems installed on the sites to develop a comprehensive set of processes, standards and guidelines to validate performance and reliability; demonstrate the investment worthiness of new products and accelerate their adoption; and establish a technical basis for bankability, a measure of a project’s risk to an investor. The lower the risk the more bankable it is, resulting in lower cost of capital for new projects.

The centers also quantify the impact of climate on PV technologies and systems and provide a research platform for emerging technologies, spurring technical innovation in the solar industry. “We provide advanced monitoring and improved performance prediction capabilities for new technologies being introduced to the market,” Stein said.

Standardized, system-level protocols

The RTCs bring a system-level approach to PV evaluation, unlike more typical testing that assesses a single solar module, or panel. The RTCs study groups of panels that make up the PV arrays that generate solar electricity.

“The lack of consistent methods and equipment at different labs increases uncertainty,” Stein said. “We’re developing standardized system-level protocols. We do everything the same at each of the sites in a range of climates. Very few labs can evaluate at the system level across climates with such consistency. That’s one of the gaps we’re trying to fill with the RTCs.”

The centers use national laboratory expertise in performance modeling, systems reliability and data analysis. Sandia has a history of measuring and modeling performance of PV systems at levels from about 100 watts to 50 kilowatts, the kinds of systems found on residential rooftops and small businesses.

The centers are designed to help mainly U.S. industry partners — ranging from module and inverter manufacturers to balance-of-system innovators — improve their technologies and carve out an advantage in the PV marketplace. Partners selected through a proposal process use their own equipment and contribute cost-sharing for the testing and analysis services.

The approach is customized for each partner and typically involves a three- to five-year field study at multiple sites with quarterly or semiannual reports. Partners receive performance and reliability data for PV products.

The program is evaluating cutting-edge and prototype technologies including:

  • High-efficiency c-Si PV solar cells and modules for such companies as SolarWorld of Hillsboro, Oregon; and Solar City of San Mateo, California; and SunPower of San Jose, California
  • Module and submodule power electronics, which can increase energy production under partially shaded conditions, for Maxim Integrated of San Jose and Chilicon Power of Los Angeles
  • Bifacial modules that allow light to enter from both sides, for Prism Solar of Highland, New York; SolarWorld; and Solar City
  • Thin-film PV technologies that can be produced at very low cost, for Stion of Menlo Park, California
  • Module coatings for antireflection and self-cleaning, for ENKI Technology of San Jose
  • Solar resource assessment technology, for Renewable NRG Systems of Hinesburg, Vermont

Pre-assembled PV systems

The RTCs also are looking into ease of installation. “We’ve done time and motion studies during installation to quantify how new designs can be implemented more quickly or with less skilled labor, thereby saving money,” Stein said. “What if we did PV the same way a manufactured home is built in a factory and shipped? A PV system could be assembled on racks off site with just two wires sticking out, driven on a truck, put on the roof, screwed in and you’re done.” He said RTC partner Norwich Technologies of White River Junction, Vermont, is doing just that, building PV systems in a factory and delivering them to installation sites, aiming to increase quality and lower costs.

“Very few programs like the RTCs exist, allowing manufacturers to test their products and models under such a wide variety of climate and location conditions, and at the same time provide access to an institution like Sandia that has literally written many of the world’s most adopted solar models,” said Randy Stewart, CEO of Prism Solar. “We are very positive about the current work and the far-reaching goals the collaboration will reach.”

Mukesh Dulani, U.S. president of SolarWorld, said the program supports manufacturers who want to provide “exactly the renewable-energy products that consumers want.”

Prism Solar Bifacial System Installed at the NM RTC

New bifacial photovoltaic (PV) cell technology makes it possible to harvest sunlight from both sides of a PV module, resulting in significant energy gains at future larger production scales with minimal cost increases. Sandia recently installed a bifacial solar PV system, built by Prism Solar, at the New Mexico Regional Test Center—a test center funded by DOE and managed by Sandia that is working to improve models of PV project performance and reliability in a variety of configurations and environments. The collaborative research project will quantify bifacial energy gains as a function of array design parameters.


Norwich Technologies and the VT RTC Featured in TV News Story

In December 2015, Norwich Technologies hoisted by crane a 5.3kW photovoltaic (PV) system onto a roof at the Vermont Regional Test Center (RTC)—a test center funded by DOE and managed by Sandia that focuses on PV performance data and supports collaborative research on integrating of PVs into Vermont’s electrical grid. As demonstrated, the pre-assembled PV meta-module system can be installed and operational in a matter of hours, reducing onsite time, on-roof work, and installation costs.  Sandia’s rigorous analysis of the installation process, and its reliability monitoring over the next three years, could drive future system improvements and open new markets for plug-and-play PV installations.

On February 18, 2016, this news story features Norwich Technologies and the installation of the system at the Vermont RTC.  This system is a three way partnership between Norwich Technologies, Solar World Americas, and Chilicon Power.

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Solar Power in Vermont

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Sen. Bernie Sanders was joined on Monday by Gov. Peter Shumlin and representatives of IBM, Sandia National Laboratories and the U.S. Department of Energy to launch the Vermont Photovoltaic Regional Test Center.

Sen. Bernie Sanders was joined on Monday by Gov. Peter Shumlin and representatives of IBM, Sandia National Laboratories and the U.S. Department of Energy to launch the Vermont Photovoltaic Regional Test Center. The center located in Williston, Vt., will research ways to cut the cost of solar power and integrate solar energy into Vermont’s statewide smart grid. “We have a bold vision here in Vermont and across the country for an energy transformation phasing fossil fuels out as quickly as possible in favor of clean, renewable energy. Solar energy is a central part of that vision,” said Sanders, who serves on the Senate energy and environment committees. To read the senator’s remarks, click here

Valley News: U.S. Solar Power Testing Site to Be Built in Vt.

By Wilson Ring Associated Press Tuesday, November 5, 2013 (Published in print: Tuesday, November 5, 2013) Williston, Vt. — A seven-acre field in Williston is being converted into an outdoor laboratory where scientists and engineers will study the effectiveness of solar panels when used in areas known for bad weather and long, cold winters, officials said Monday. Once construction is complete, the field will accommodate panels capable of converting sunlight into as much as 300 kilowatts of solar power. The Vermont location, near the popular Taft Corners retail area, will be funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative. It is one of five similar test locations across the country where solar panels will be tested under different climactic conditions. The initiative has a goal of reducing the cost of solar energy by 75 percent by 2020 and helping the country get 15 percent of its electricity from the sun by 2030. “The sun shines in all 50 states,” said Minh Le, program manager of the federal government’s Solar Energy Technologies Program. He noted at Monday’s event that the current world leader in solar power production is Germany, which gets about as much sun as Alaska. Read more

Burlington Free Press: New research center aims to energize solar business in the US

Williston center, one of 5 in country, expected to be operational within next few months   WILLISTON — Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., looked on the bright side of Monday’s finger-numbing cold weather at the announcement of a federal solar panel test center coming to Chittenden County. “There’s sun out there to dispel any rumors Vermont doesn’t get sun in the winter,” Sanders joked. The $3 million Regional Test Center, to be built on about seven acres owned by IBM in Williston, would be one of five in the United States. The others are being built in Colorado, Florida, New Mexico and Nevada. The Vermont center is expected to be operational in the next few months. The goal of the center, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative, is to help find ways to reduce the cost of solar energy by 75 percent by 2020 and generate at least 15 percent of America’s electricity with solar power by 2030. Read more

HelioVolt: Leveraging Test Centers to Validate System Performance

They may be small in size, but the 5-kilowatt HelioVolt solar installations recently deployed at three DOE Regional Test Centers (RTCs) represent a big step for the photovoltaic (PV) industry. As the first three PV arrays to be tested under the SunShot Technical Assistance program, these solar energy systems kick-start a multi-year Energy Department-sponsored effort to develop standards for validating and monitoring promising new solar technologies. More Learn more about HelioVolt 

SunShot Grand Challenge: Summit and Technology Forum

The SunShot Grand Challenge: Summit and Technology Forum was the first event in a series of Department of Energy Grand Challenges. This event focused on SunShot Initiative goals of achieving grid-parity solar energy within the decade. The SunShot Summit and Technology Forum included:

  • Plenary sessions featuring Energy Secretary Steven Chu and other industry leaders
  • Group discussions focusing on the future priorities and transformational ideas needed to achieve the SunShot goal of cost-competitive solar by the end of the decade
    • Big and Small Ideas: How to Lower Solar Financing Costs
  • An interactive technology forum providing a comprehensive picture of the SunShot landscape.
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Future UCF solar panel research center may spur business

Future UCF solar panel research center may spur business Orlando Business Journal, February 3, 2012

“because manufacturers would want to be near where the latest technology is being tested and validated,” said James Fenton, director of the Florida Solar Energy Center and one of the key players behind the planned center. “A manufacturer, investor, bank or customer can come see the testing.”

Sandia Lab building solar test centers across US

“With the trend in the solar industry toward larger systems and greater capital investment – substantial amounts of money are going into this field – the financial community is increasingly scrutinizing how well these systems operate,” said Charles Hanley, manager of Photovoltaic and Distributed Systems Integration at Sandia. “The RTCs will provide enhanced monitoring and improved performance prediction capabilities for new technologies being introduced to the market.”