When he first embarked on his journey to the U.S. Department of Energy’s American-Made Solar Prize semifinals, Herndon resident Adam Winsor did not know how photovoltaic cells are made or that they contain silver traces designed to capture energy with maximum efficiency.
All he knew was that there was a challenge, and he had a skill set that could help solve it.
A freelance artist more accustomed to illustrating children’s books and developing product renderings for businesses than engineering technology, Winsor first learned about the energy department’s national competition to encourage innovation in the solar energy industry from a friend who suggested he submit an idea if he had one.
After finding a study that said the unattractiveness of solar panels remains a barrier for many homeowners who might otherwise adopt the technology, Winsor realized he could use his artistic skills to design solar panels that look nice on top of being efficient and environmentally friendly.
The resulting pitch earned Winsor a spot as one of 20 American-Made Solar Prize semifinalists announced at the Solar Power International conference last September.
“Humans like things to be pretty,” Winsor said. “…I love technology and how it can progress, but sometimes, just putting an artistic design, looking at something through a design lens can make it more accessible to everyone.”
As a semifinalist, Winsor received $50,000 to develop a full prototype of his proposed decorative solar panels. He will compete at Carnegie Mellon University on Mar. 27 to become one of up to 10 teams to earn $100,000 in cash prizes and advance to the competition’s final phase.
The two ultimate American-Made Solar Prize winners will be chosen in July by a panel of expert judges assembled by the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which administers the contest.
The Department of Energy launched the American-Made Solar Prize in January 2018 as a $3 million competition for entrepreneurs to energize U.S. solar research and product development.
Open to private companies, university researchers, and other organizations as well as individuals like Winsor, the competition consists of three separate rounds that each culminate with $500,000 awards to two winners, who are also given access to resources, expertise, and investors to help them bring their products to market.
The first round started in June 2018 and ended on Sept. 24, 2019, when DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy assistant secretary Daniel Simmons announced the winners at the Solar Energy International conference in Salt Lake City, Utah.
The round one winners were a team based in Portland, Ore., that developed a way of integrating solar cells in the manufacturing process for new factory-built homes and an Atlanta, Ga., team that designed a new kind of photovoltaic cell that is safer and more efficient and reliable.
Winsor is competing in the prize’s second round, which opened to competitors on Mar. 22 with the semifinalists revealed on the same day that the previous round’s winners were announced and the third and last round started.
The submission deadline for the last round was Dec. 10. The 20 semifinalists will be announced in February.
Funded by the DOE’s Solar Energy Technologies Office, the American-Made Solar Prize fuels entrepreneurship and innovation that can help support domestic manufacturing as public demand for renewable energy technology grows, according to the department.
A Pew Research Center survey conducted in October and published on Dec. 17 found that just 6 percent of American homeowners have installed solar panels at their homes, but 46 percent have seriously considered adding residential solar panels, up from 40 percent in 2016.
Respondents who already had installed solar panels or expressed an interest in doing so said they wanted to help the environment and save money on utility bills.
While varying policies across different states and localities affect where solar energy is adopted and how quickly, appearances also remain a concern for some.
Midwest Energy News reported on June 12 that officials for an affluent village near Chicago, Ill., were denying approval to residents seeking to install rooftop solar on the grounds that the panels “could degrade property values and damage the aesthetics of the neighborhood.”
Contrary to those perceptions, the real estate information company Zillow found in an Apr. 16 analysis that solar energy increases property values, with homes featuring solar systems selling for 4.1 percent more on average than comparable homes without solar power.
Winsor hopes to eliminate aesthetics as a question for homeowners when deciding whether to install solar panels.
“I want to live in a world where solar energy is everywhere, and it’s a beautiful piece of our planet, not just something that we have to do because of necessity,” Winsor said.
Given his limited prior technical knowledge, Winsor admits he was surprised when he made the American-Made Solar Prize semifinals, but he has since studied solar technology extensively, even buying a college textbook on solar cell design.
He has also gotten to learn from experts through the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which helps connect competitors with universities, national laboratories, and other facilities.
For a proposal video that he submitted for the contest, Winsor used a laser cutter at Nova Labs, a volunteer-run makerspace in Reston, to carve designs into screens about a quarter of the size of a standard solar panel.
Thanks to the additional resources available to him through NREL, that initial proof of concept is now evolving into what Winsor hopes will be a functioning prototype. He is currently using a computer to create a design that will later be printed onto actual solar cells.
Later this month, Winsor plans to travel down to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte to use manufacturing equipment at the university’s photovoltaic technology research laboratory to produce a full-sized decorative solar panel to present to judges when the semifinalists convene at Carnegie Mellon University in March.
Regardless of the final outcome, Winsor says the experience of competing for the American-Made Solar Prize has already proven invaluable.
“Without this sort of thing, my idea would just be an idea in my head and never go anywhere,” Winsor said. “…From the Department of Energy's perspective, they’re looking at it from the other side. It’s a way to get fresh ideas and viewpoints on a problem that might not be apparent to people who've been in the industry or in academia for decades.”
As a member of Nova Labs, Winsor says the nonprofit helped him bring his idea for decorative solar panels to fruition by providing resources, such as the laser cutter he used to design his proof of concept, and an environment that fosters collaboration between people with different expertise and backgrounds.
Founded in 2011 with the goal of “empowering our community to rediscover the joy of making things,” Nova Labs boasts a 10,500 square-foot facility with workspaces, classrooms, incubator offices, and a workshop to support activities from metalworking and blacksmithing to robotics, jewelry making, and drone building.
Winsor is not the only Nova Labs member in the American-Made Solar Prize semifinals.
A James Madison University adjunct professor who previously taught courses on drones at George Mason University, Fred Briggs is a semifinalist for his proposal of a manufacturing system that can cut and assemble small-scale solar panels.
Unlike Winsor, Briggs has been working with solar technology for years, and he came up with his idea after facing challenges while trying to find a solar charger that was small yet durable enough to power tracking devices used by researchers to follow bird migration patterns.
Briggs, who has served on Nova Labs’ board of directors in the past, hopes to eventually develop his micro-solar panels to the point where they can be commercially viable for communications radios, drones, satellites, and other functions where energy needs to be sustained, but sunlight may not be reliably available.
“Costs for solar are going down. The quality of solar is going up,” Briggs said. “They’re constantly coming up with new solar technologies that are more efficient…I think there’s a lot of opportunities with solar, and as you decrease the costs, it becomes more viable for areas that perhaps don’t have the requisite amount of sun that might be needed.”