It seems like, these days, the most interesting stories in alternative energy are all coming from the little guys. The entrepreneurs and startups finally getting some money behind their big ideas. But to think that the big dogs are ignoring the possible markets in alternative energy...well, that's just silly. Today, we're lucky enough to talk to the biggest dog of them all, General Electric, and the head of their solar technology platform at their global research center, Danielle Merfeld.
Danielle has been with GE for eight years, and is now in charge of the solar R&D projects at all four of GE's global research sites (Niskayuna, NY; Bangalore, India; Shanghai, China; and Munich, Germany). And we're happy to have her as our EcoGeek of the Week.
EG: So what are your responsibilities as head of the solar tech at the GE Research Center, and what kind of resources do you have at your disposal?
DM: My responsibility is to make sure that the R&D we are doing in the solar space aligns with our Energy business needs, and even more importantly to keep an eye on technology trends and advances to continue to develop our pipeline for the next generation of Solar technology products. I work closely with our experts in the various technical fields -- Si materials, cells and module design, thin film PV, inverters, packaging, testing, and grid connectivity -- to highlight new ideas, and mature ideas to the point of passing them off to the business where they become products. I also have the luxury of working with our Energy Financial Services team, helping them to evaluate investment opportunities in the Solar space. This is especially valuable because it gives me an insider view of who may be a good potential partner.
EG: Of all the projects you're working on right now, which do you think will most help to bring the cost of PV solar to grid parity?
DM: We have some programs focusing on the development of thin film PV, and -- whether you are talking about rigid or flexible substrates -- this class of modules has demonstrated a path to a low cost of generated energy. Although, advances at the cell or module level have to be combined with better installation practices and other 'balance of systems' cost or performance improvements to reach grid parity in the coming years.
EG: A lot of startups are working on technologies that they hope will be truly disruptive, and truly change the world's energy landscape. Do you see GE's role as providing more practical and immediately applicable solutions?
DM: The great thing about GE is that we are very much grounded in the practical and immediate solutions that can be brought to market today, but because we have one of the last remaining corporate research laboratories we also have the ability to reach out several years to identify and harness disruptive ideas and put them through their paces - separating the good ideas that require further work and partnerships from those ideas that are not likely to realize success. I have been amazed to learn how so often entrepreneurs and brilliant scientists don't see the roadblocks or barriers that exist for the introduction of a new technology. Through our current role in the energy industry today we have insight into key aspects of power generation needs, energy management and distribution issues.
EG: Your research unit seems to be focused entirely on PV. Are you, or other folks at GE, working to apply your huge technological assets to solar thermal, and do you think that might be a faster path to grid parity?
DM: We are also looking at solar thermal technology, since it could fit very well with our existing combined cycle power generation offerings. But, our Solar business is focused mostly on PV where the costs are rapidly coming down and technical advances are only speeding up. Solar thermal might very well have a faster path to grid parity, but only in specific locations with the right solar resource and T&D infrastructure.
EG: With all the excitement surrounding thin-film solar these days, silicon solar seems almost passe. But your molded wafer technology seems pretty exciting to me. What are the advantages of this technology?
DM: Our molded wafer technology is addressing a few key issues within the value chain for Si-based PV. The cost of starting material is lower for this method because our process allows for a lower purity of incoming material, and by molding one wafer at a time in an assembly line fashion we do not lose silicon to kerf loss, such as when blocks or ingots of silicon are slices into wafers.
EG: I think you're doing fantastic work at GE. But the strength of our society is, and will remain for a long while, entirely based on fossil fuels. Do you believe that we can change this?
DM: I do believe that we can change this situation. It will take great, low-cost technology, a well-educated public and a climate (no pun intended) of change. Once the public better understands the benefits of having a strong renewable energy sector in this country (more jobs, economic security, environmental protection, etc.) then the politicians, policy makers, and industry can work towards securing that future.
written by Solar Latin America Summit, October 04, 2012
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