By MATTHEW L. WALD/NYT
WASHINGTON — The Energy Department plans to announce on Friday that it will provide a $150 million loan guarantee to a company in Massachusetts that has developed a radical new way to make the silicon wafers for solar cells at a far lower cost. The company, 1366 Technologies, has invented a way to cast the wafers at the desired dimensions — 200 microns thick, or about eight thousandths of an inch — rather than slicing them from a big block and losing up to half the material as dust. The technology could cut the price of manufacturing a solar cell by roughly 40 percent, the venture says. (The company’s name refers to the amount of solar energy, in watts, that hits a square meter of the earth’s atmosphere.) “This project is a game-changer that could dramatically lower the cost of photovoltaic solar cells,” the secretary of energy, Steven Chu, said in a prepared statement. Jonathan M. Silver, the head of the Energy Department’s loan guarantee program, said that 1366’s innovation was “the result of exactly what the Department of Energy is trying to do, to develop a cradle-to-market innovation strategy that helps identify transformative technologies early in the process, and makes it possible for them to grow and mature more rapidly, and leapfrog many of the steps along the way.” Mr. Silver said his office had committed more than $12 billion in loan guarantees to 15 solar projects so far, some of them manufacturing plants and some of them energy producers. Of that, $3 billion has been announced this month. 1366 Technologies was one of the early success stories of another Energy Department effort known as the Advanced Research Projects Agency — Energy, modeled after a better-known Pentagon agency, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa. Like Darpa, Arpa-e gives seed money to companies that have creative ideas but are unlikely to secure private venture capital because the prospects of success are so uncertain. The announcement is part of a flurry of loan guarantees awarded by the Energy Department in recent days. On Wednesday, the department said it was awarding a guarantee of $359.1 million to Sempra, an energy services company, for a photovoltaic generating project in Arizona, known as Mesquite Solar 1. The installation will rely on a new kind of inverter, the device that turns the direct current from solar cells into the alternating current used on the electric grid. On Tuesday, the department announced $2 billion in loan guarantees for two California solar projects using the sun’s heat to boil water so a conventional turbine-generator can make electricity. One will be built by Abengoa Solar and the other by NextEra Energy Resources; both projects will use variations on existing solar thermal technology. On June 9, the agency announced a partial guarantee for a $350 million loan for a geothermal project by Ormat in Nevada.