A new University of Washington institute to develop efficient, cost-effective solar power and better energy storage systems has been launched with an event attended by UW President Michael K. Young, Gov. Jay Inslee and researchers, industry experts and policy leaders in renewable energy.
The Clean Energy Institute formed when Washington’s governor and state legislators last summer allocated $6 million to create a research center at the university that will advance solar energy and electrical energy storage capacities. The institute will better connect and boost existing energy research at the UW as well as attract new partnerships and talent, including new faculty members.
“Our goal is to create record-breaking solar energy efficiencies, low-cost processing and the integrated systems that will make solar power the cornerstone of a new clean energy economy,” said Daniel Schwartz, director of the institute and chair and professor of chemical engineering. “The Clean Energy Institute is enabling us to dive into the science and engineering that will lead to solar and energy storage technologies the world needs and wants.”
The funding will support the institute’s first two years. It came as part of a package last summer that also allocated $1.8 million to create an ocean acidification research center at the UW.
Solar panels dot many rooftops and power highway signs across the country, but the technology still hasn’t reached the lower cost and reliability needed for widespread adoption, Schwartz said. And even the best solar cells still need better energy storage capabilities to integrate seamlessly into the electrical grid.
The institute’s funding will help hire four new faculty members in the fields of advanced materials and energy systems. It will also provide fellowships to recruit six new graduate students and support about 20 graduate students pursuing out-of-the-box research in solar energy, batteries and smart grids. About half of the funding in the first year will go toward developing lab space and new instrumentation in the UW’s recently completed Molecular Engineering & Sciences Building.
“The institute will really accelerate the pace of both scientific discovery and technology transfer at UW while educating the next generation of clean energy leaders,” said David Ginger, the institute’s associate director and a chemistry professor. “Discovery is very important to innovation, and the state funding will allow us to take risks to find real breakthroughs.”
Engineers and scientists at the UW are currently making new materials that efficiently harvest energy from the sun and can be manufactured at a low cost. For example, one team is creating solar “inks” to coat surfaces as a way to make low-cost solar cells, while other researchers are creating plastic solar cells they hope can be mass produced. Key to this technology is designing materials at the molecular level and understanding how changes can impact the performance of a solar cell, Ginger said.
The institute also will support engineering research on how solar energy production, battery storage and smart-grid technology can work together to accelerate the scale-up of clean energy. As the state aims to meet ambitious greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals over the next decades, Schwartz said, Washington can’t expect its reliable hydroelectric power sources to grow with the economy.
“Solar energy is the one resource that can truly scale up going forward, but we need to be smart about the whole energy system to help it happen,” Schwartz said.
The institute will be an interdisciplinary hub for solar and battery research, drawing several dozen UW faculty from across campus as well as university, federal and state partners, including Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the UW’s Center for Commercialization and the Molecular Engineering & Sciences Institute.
Inslee and Young joined speakers including Bullitt Foundation President Denis Hayes and Technology Alliance Executive Director Susannah Malarkey, as well as and faculty, staff and industry partners to inaugurate the institute and emphasize the need for energy innovation. Faculty and graduate students presented their research and invited guests toured the lab facilities.
“I am very pleased that this institute can help germinate and see the fruition of intellectual talent and put that to work right here at the University of Washington,” Inslee said. “This is the culmination of a multi-decadal dream I’ve had, and to see it come to pass it just a huge delight.”