Analysts at the Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis study lab-to-market pathways for clean energy technologies.
Dec. 6, 2022—Research and development (R&D) has been vital to developing new clean energy technologies.
Yet, for technologies to advance from the research lab to viable commercial products,
many obstacles must be overcome. To replicate such pathways for future clean energy
technologies, the critical period between research demonstrations and first commercialization
is important to understand.
Analysts from the Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis (JISEA), National
Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), and U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) examined case
studies of the first commercialization of four clean energy technologies: thin-film
photovoltaic (PV) solar panels, wind turbines, dual-stage evaporators for refrigeration,
and fuel cells for material handling equipment.
Findings across the case studies—published in a Frontiers in Energy Research article—revealed three components that are common to successful advancement to commercialization:
(1) a good fit among public-private partnerships, R&D infrastructure, and the technology
itself; (2) appropriate alignment of government regulations, R&D priorities, and market
forces; and (3) the right timing between technology readiness and market opportunity.
"These findings can help inform clean energy investment decision-making, maximize
benefits from R&D, and advance transition to a productive, low-emission future," said
Wyatt Merrill, DOE technology manager and co-author.
Thin-Film Solar PV: Solutions to Meet Standards Inspired Technological Breakthroughs
From the 1980s to the early 2000s, DOE funded research on thin-film PV cells, including
partnership programs led by NREL and direct funding to solar manufacturers such as
The innovation ecosystem had enabled the demonstration of a record-breaking (at the
time) 15.8% cell efficiency and a new manufacturing technique that allowed First Solar
to produce thin-film PV modules at a larger scale—a breakthrough alternative to the
slower, costlier manufacturing process at the time.
With greater device efficiency and scalable manufacturing procedures in place, R&D
focus shifted to testing and validation. Through support from Arizona State University
and NREL, First Solar proved in 2003 that its modules were ready to enter the solar
A 0.6-kW First Solar thin-film solar PV test array was installed June 1995 at NREL's
Outdoor Test Facility. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL
The following year, DOE funded independent studies on thin-film PV module emissions
and recyclability, allowing First Solar to meet Germany's energy performance and regulatory
requirements and enter the market that same year. In doing so, First Solar introduced
a module takeback program in 2005—a major turning point for thin-film PV commercialization.
"The thin-film PV case study shows the importance of addressing regulatory needs within
the technology's first major market," said Marie Mapes, DOE technology manager and
co-author. "In addition, establishing a proven product at a price and time when the
market was ready for it led to its early success."
Innovation Ecosystem Funded Advanced Wind Turbine Blade Design
Wind turbine blade lengths have historically increased over time to capture more energy;
however, heavier blades cause higher loads and increased costs. From 1995 to 2008,
universities, national laboratories, and private companies funded advances to improve
wind turbine blade design.
Private-public support and open innovation, which are indifferent to a specific approach
or design solution, led to the parallel development of flat-back and bend-twist blade
designs. These blades, which are substantially longer, capture more energy without
adding significant mass or compromising reliability. And these innovations have been
credited by wind technologists as some of the largest contributing factors to decreased
wind energy prices, which are down by over 60% since 2009. In absence of patents protecting
the innovations, private companies incorporated the designs into their own proprietary
blades and analysis tools, which accelerated commercialization. Today, most major
commercial turbines include elements of flat-back and bend-twist designs.
A digital rendering shows a modern bend-twist, flat-backed wind turbine blade. A cross-sectional
view of the flat back is shown in the upper left corner. Graphic by Besiki Kazaishvili, NREL
Efficiency Standards Established First-Market Dual-Evaporator Refrigerators, Sparked Additional R&D
A refrigerator Energy Guide rating. Whirlpool's dual-evaporator refrigerator technology
inspired further efficiency improvements across the industry. Photo from iStock
Electricity demand by refrigerators and freezers was historically met by vapor compression
refrigeration technology with a single compressor, evaporator, and condenser. Such
a design mixes the air between fresh and frozen food, which can lead to moisture loss,
frost formation, and degraded food. With a dual-evaporator approach, a post-condenser
valve system corrects the cooling load and increases energy efficiency, but achieving
this design requires extra components and higher production costs.
In 2014, Whirlpool Corp. and DOE partnered to increase appliance efficiency. A cooperative
R&D agreement allowed Whirlpool to access Oak Ridge National Laboratory's modeling
tools and facilities. The agreement not only supported the design, validation, and
prototyping of new technology but also allowed Whirlpool to retain ownership of the
intellectual property. The collaborative team demonstrated an advanced refrigerator
design with more than 50% energy reduction per unit volume and a cost increase of
less than $100.
"Whirlpool's dual-evaporator technology was enabled by the need to meet higher efficiency
standards requirements," said Antonio Bouza, co-author. "This, in turn, motivated
other companies to develop similar systems and invest in R&D in refrigerator components
that improve efficiency while reducing complexity and cost."
Fuel Cells for Forklifts: A Niche Market Proven With Large-Scale Demonstrations
Forklifts and other material handling equipment have historically been powered by
gasoline, propane, or diesel-fueled engines for outdoor operations and lead acid batteries
for indoor applications.
Unlike traditional power technologies, hydrogen fuel cells do not emit harmful air
pollutants or carbon dioxide and do not have performance issues in cold environments.
Warehouses are a sensible first market for this technology, as they need only one
refueling location rather than the large network automotive applications would require.
A Sysco warehouse in Houston, Texas, uses fuel cell-powered forklifts. Photo by Jennifer Kurtz, NREL
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 funded demonstration of large-scale
fuel cell material-handling equipment. With the funding, DOE deployed hundreds of
fuel cell-powered lift trucks and advanced fueling infrastructure, data collection
and analysis, and operator training. The U.S. Department of Defense also deployed
100 fuel cell-powered lift trucks at three centers and an Army base. Throughout the
2010s, follow-on work supported the integration of 40,000 units of material handling
Ultimately, fuel cells demonstrated energy density, fast refueling, and fuel storage
capacities that exceeded the performance of some of their contemporary alternative
technologies—and the opening of the material handling equipment market to new innovations
spawned further electrification of the equipment as well as industry interest in cleaner
The four case studies analyzed by experts at JISEA, NREL, and DOE highlight how a
good balance of technology, R&D, and public-private partnership—along with regulatory
and market force alignment and the right timing—can lead to successful first commercialization
of clean energy technologies. Read more about these studies in the full Frontiers in Energy Research article.
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