Cascade Engineering selected for DOE SunShot

November 9, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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The U.S. Department of Energy has selected Cascade Engineering as one of three private companies in Michigan, plus the University of Michigan, to participate in its SunShot Initiative.

Cascade is already using part of the expected $600,000 matching grant awarded by DOE in September to begin development of polymer racks for supporting large, photovoltaic solar energy installations on flat commercial roofs.

Metals have been the primary materials used for the racks that support large solar energy collectors on flat roofs, but metal generally entails greater weight stress on the roof than plastic racks.

“We built a lot of our business on metal-to-plastic conversion. This is a natural extension of our expertise,” said Michael Ford, business unit manager of the Cascade Renewable Energy division of Cascade Engineering Inc.

The DOE SunShot Initiative, a national effort, aims to decrease the total costs of solar energy systems by 75 percent before the end of the decade, according to the DOE website. DOE maintains that reaching the goal will make solar energy cost-competitive with conventional forms of electricity without subsidies and will enable widespread deployment across the United States.

The name SunShot was inspired by President John F. Kennedy's “moon shot” program that put the first man on the moon. To accomplish SunShot, DOE is supporting efforts by private companies, academia and national laboratories to drive down the cost of solar electricity to about six cents per kilowatt-hour. That would enable solar-generated power to account for 15-18 percent of America’s electricity generation by 2030, according to an estimate by DOE.

Under the SunShot Initiative, DOE will fund selective research and loan guarantees for high risk, high payoff concepts, and in early September announced awards in six categories: hardware; increased photovoltaic cell efficiency; advanced integration systems allowing higher levels of solar energy on to the grid; new solar technology incubators; next generation PVs; and new tools and databases for reducing non-hardware costs such as streamlining of building codes and permits.

Michigan did very well in the hardware category, taking three of the nine hardware awards. The hardware includes all components used in solar power installation for residential, commercial and utility markets, and represents a major opportunity to achieve significant cost reductions.

In addition to Cascade Engineering’s $602,623 matching grant, the other companies were:

**Dow Chemical in Midland, which received a matching grant of $12.8 million for a project to develop a building-integrated PV system that includes high power density with an efficiency target of up to 30 percent, plus integrated plans for heat management and recovery, and integrated power electronics.

**Raymond Tinnerman Manufacturing in Rochester Hills, which was awarded $1.67 million to develop an innovative bracket system for commercial rooftop installations.

In addition, in the category for next generation PV, the University of Michigan was awarded $1.5 million for developing the next generation of organic PV technology using small-molecule systems incorporated into a tandem architecture.

Cascade Renewable Energy has designed and installed several 150-kilowatt solar energy systems, both rooftop and ground-mounted. Closest to home is its own system at Cascade Engineering’s North Plant, plus a 150 kW system recently installed by CRE on the roof of the Padnos Iron & Metal recycling plant on 44th Street in Wyoming. Another 150 kW system was installed at Roskam Baking in Grand Rapids, and a smaller system is on the roof of the Green Well Gastro Pub in the East Hills neighborhood.

A 70 kW solar PV system is now being installed by CRE at Every Woman’s Place, a nonprofit organization in Muskegon that helps women who are the victims of domestic violence.

In late September, the Michigan Department of Transportation announced it had contracted with CRE to design and install 38 kW solar PV systems at three MDOT rest area facilities — two in the Upper Peninsula and one in southeast Michigan.

The systems, which will be connected to the grid, have a dual purpose: reduce MDOT energy costs and demonstrate the feasibility and benefit of photovoltaic energy generation. According to MDOT, the entire cost is covered by a grant from DOE, and each installation will have a lobby display providing real-time information about that system’s output. Work is already nearing completion, according to Ford.

Large rooftop systems can be more problematic than ground mounts, especially on flat roofs. Some racking systems already on the market are designed to be secured to the roof with penetrating fasteners, which can be a risk in regard to leaks in the roof. Others are secured to the rooftop simply by ballast — weight that prevents the installation from being blown off by wind or knocked off by seismic activity, without requiring penetration of the roof.

Ford said the R&D team at Cascade Renewables will study all aspects of costs of the different types of installations of rooftop solar systems, but he said he believes its focus will be on a ballasted system.

CRE uses racking components made by other companies in its installation business. However, Ford said solar energy is “growing so quickly that we think there’s a lot of business for everyone in the market and we want to try to identify a product that has some unique attributes that can help our customers save money, and deliver a more streamlined solar PV installation.”

Ford said there is greater design flexibility in using plastics instead of metal. Additional features in the racking can include “molded-in components … that are more difficult to do with metals.”

High volume production will be the key to cutting costs significantly, according to Ford.

“The beauty of our process capability is, we like a lot of volume,” he added, explaining that in polymer injection-molding, there is a high up-front capital cost, but large production volumes can dramatically reduce the final cost per part.

Solar energy installations are getting larger, he said, with some now generating multiple megawatts of power at one site, “so it’s very conceivable you can get into high-volume production pretty quickly.”

According to Constellation Energy, a 16.1 megawatt system is being built at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md., and is expected to produce more than 22 million kilowatt hours of emissions-free electricity per year. Generating the same amount of electricity using nonrenewable sources would result in the release of 15,170 metric tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to the emissions from almost 3,000 passenger vehicles annually, according to EPA data.

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