Solar has undergone a transformation over the past 10 years. In 2011 in the U.S., photovoltaic devices, or solar cells, provided enough electricity to power about 170,000 homes. As of May 2021, solar accounted for 5.1% of the U.S. electricity mix — enough to power more than 12 million homes.
This dramatic increase in the use of solar power is mostly due to technology advancements and reduced costs. Now, with major governmental and corporate entities setting net-zero carbon emissions goals by 2050, the use of solar-generated electricity must continue to grow even more in order to realize these sustainability targets.
To contribute to these enormous goals, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a Phase III Industry/University Cooperative Research Center (IUCRC) grant to The University of Texas at Austin to lead the Center for a Solar Powered Future (SPF2050) with partner institution Colorado State University. Over the past 10 years, through Phases I and II, the center received more than $11 million in funding from 35 different industry and government members, which has included the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, Office of Naval Research, Air Force Research Laboratory and Naval Postgraduate School, in addition to more than $1 million in funding from the NSF.
SPF2050 is led by Brian Korgel, a professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering's McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering and director of UT's Energy Institute. Formerly known as the Center for Next Generation Photovoltaics, the center changed its name to reflect its broad mission to support industry and government partners in reaching their ambitious energy sustainability net-zero energy goals.
“Through this collaboration, we were able to fund some interesting research projects, influence and steer the academic community toward solving specific technical challenges that this industry needs to address. There is truly a win-win relationship between center researchers and the industry advisory board,” said Gang Xiong, director of First Solar’s California Technology Center and chair of SPF2050’s industry advisory board.
SPF2050 research will continue to focus on all aspects of the solar power industry, including materials and devices, manufacturing, balance of systems, grid connection and deployment, as well as energy storage and integration with vehicles and buildings. The center also plans to build on its track record of enhancing public education and addressing energy equity, poverty and societal impacts, with summer research programs for undergraduate students and experiences for teachers. SPF2050 also includes partnerships with Arizona State University and Texas A&M University, further enabling the center to cover research across the entire PV industry supply chain and respond to solar needs for industry and government.
The IUCRC program was created by the NSF to generate breakthrough research through close and sustained engagement between industry innovators, world-class academic teams and government agencies. As the only NSF IUCRC focused on solar research, the center is unique in many ways.
“With the support of the NSF IUCRC program, SPF2050 delivers an opportunity for the academic community to respond to an extremely important societal need by carrying out focused pre-competitive research that is of direct interest to our industry and government partners,” Korgel said. “This is a very important and worthwhile challenge to contribute toward meeting the ambitious net-zero emissions by 2050 goals.”