Sharp Labs in Camas to receive $4.2M to develop solar technology

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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Sharp Labs of America in Camas will receive about $4.2 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop next-generation solar technology that could enable utilities to provide on-demand and low-cost solar electricity, the federal agency said Thursday.

The money is part of a larger $30 million award made by the Department of Energy to support 12 projects aimed at developing new hybrid solar energy converters and hybrid energy storage systems that could deliver low-cost, high-efficiency solar energy on demand.

“The United States is becoming a global leader in solar and we’re seeing more and more Americans rely on affordable, clean solar energy to power their homes and businesses,” Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said in a news release.

Larry Meixner, president and CEO of Camas-based Sharp Labs of America, said Thursday that Sharp “has been in the solar cell business for more than 50 years,” including as a longtime leader in photovoltaic technology. The federal award — the largest among the 12 projects funded by the Department of Energy — enables the company to “jump to the next stage of technology,” Meixner said.

With the federal money in hand, Sharp will develop a hybrid solar converter that incorporates a partially transmitting mirror to reflect visible wavelengths of light on high-efficiency solar cells. The system will also pass ultraviolet and infrared light to heat a thermal fluid.

Photovoltaic systems are useful for converting solar power into electricity, “but the electricity is there only when the sun is shining,” said Eric Rohlfing, deputy director of technology for the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.

With the hybrid technology Sharp is developing, Rohlfing said, the idea is to not only harness solar power for electricity but to also have the ability to store it and later release it onto the grid when the sun isn’t shining.

Ultimately, Rohlfing said, the technology could be used on a large scale, “providing significant amounts of power” to homes and businesses, but in a way that allows utilities to “follow peak demands better.”

“We envision this being a complement to existing photovoltaic facilities,” Rohlfing added.

The 12 projects that received funding from the Department of Energy include $3.4 million for a hybrid solar converter project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; $3.6 million for development of a high-efficiency solar cell by Niles, Ill.-based MicroLink Devices Inc.; $2.4 million for development of a dish-shaped hybrid solar converter by Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems; and $4.2 million for the project Sharp Labs is developing.

Rohlfing said funding the solar-based projects goes to the heart of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy’s mission to achieve economic and environmental goals, including boosting the efficient use of energy, reducing reliance on imported energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. “This is kind of accomplishing all of those things,” he said.