The University of Arizona Center for Innovation has been chosen to partner with the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory to fast track the creation and manufacturing of American-made solar technologies.
Created in 2018, the American-Made Challenges Solar Prize competition arose in response to tariffs placed on solar products, according to Debbie Brodt-Giles, the American-Made Challenges manager at NREL. Funded by the Department of Energy and administrated by NREL, the competition has the goal of supporting American-made solar ideas.
“There was a lot of interest from the administration to focus more on United States manufacturing," Brodt-Giles said.
The United States Department of Energy set aside $3 million for the solar competition, which is open to anyone willing to pitch and prototype a new idea relating to solar technology.
The competition effectively reduces the time it would normally take to pitch and test new solar technology by putting contestants through three contests: the “Ready, Set, Go” contests. Each contest gives contestants 90 days to advance their technology and present before a panel of judges. If teams win during these contests, they receive financial help and resources heading towards the next round.
Teams are comprised of unique innovators from varying occupations.
“One interesting one is an artist who joined the competition,” Brodt-Giles said. “He thought solar was ugly, so he started making beautiful solar panels for gardens and landscaping.”
Sarah Gomach, the Solar Prize project lead, said the teams bring their own unique experiences to the challenges.
“There is a lot of people looking at empty spaces and how to put solar there,” Gomach said. “Can you pull solar panels out on a farm field with a tractor or can you put them in a container and put them out in a parking lot?”
The solar competition allows for uncommon ideas, which may go unsupported by grant funding, to be tested for viability on the solar market. Gomach added anyone can participate, including students at the UA.
The final stage of this year’s solar competition is currently underway, and the UA is going to hold the final demo day for competitors. Demo day is a demonstration of the team’s final product to the judges, according to Gomach.
Demo day is predicted to be in late November or early December, according to Eric Smith, the executive director of the UACI. Smith said he is passionate about working with startup companies and UACI is a perfect fit for this competition.
“Tech Parks, where we are located, has one of the largest testing and demonstration sites for solar in the world,” Smith said.
UACI recently entered into a two-year contract with NREL as a “Power Connector” providing: mentorship programs, recruitment for the contest, network building for the competitors once their products go to the market and hosting the final demo day for the solar competition, according to Smith.
With the onset of COVID-19, competitors are shifting their methods for presentation. Smith said the power connectors have been assisting teams by filming their product pitches for virtual Demo Days.
Two winners will be chosen in the last round and receive $500,000 in cash.
Gomach said the competitors can use the cash prize anyway they see fit. Some quit their day jobs to focus solely on their solar technology and others manage to further their own businesses.
“We’ve had small businesses that were almost ready to shut their doors, and by winning prize money, they were able to turn $50,000 in prize money into over two million dollars with Venture Capital funding in a couple of months,” Gomach added.
Other challenges have been created since the solar competition, such as the Lithium-Ion Battery Recycling prize, Geothermal Manufacturing and more. The UA is only participating in the Solar Prize thus far.
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