United States Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu speaks at the University Center of Excellence for Photovoltaics. Gary May, Georgia Tech ECE School Chair, is shown in the background.

U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu joined Georgia 4th District Congressman Hank Johnson on a briefing and tour of the Georgia Tech University Center of Excellence for Photovoltaics (UCEP) on May 7. Secretary Chu was in Atlanta to give the keynote address for the Georgia Tech Ph.D. and Master's commencement ceremony held that same evening, where he challenged the graduates to play an active role in solving critical energy and climate change issues.

UCEP's research and development program serves as a launching pad for the innovative photovoltaics technology company, Suniva, located in Norcross, Ga. Suniva's innovation in photovoltaics was awarded support from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act tax credit program, allowing the company to expand and create 50 additional jobs in the area.

UCEP was established in 1992 with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy and has been continuously funded by the DoE since its inception. The Center is led by Ajeet Rohatgi, who began his solar energy research program in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering when he came to Georgia Tech in 1985. Dr. Rohatgi is also the founder and chief technology officer for Suniva and he is highly regarded as one of the world's leading research scientists in photovoltaic (PV) technology.

The primary challenge for solar energy researchers lies in reducing solar cell cost while maintaining high performance. According to Ian Cooper, a UCEP research engineer, the Center aims to use less silicon by cutting wafer thickness, using fewer process steps to create the wafers, and creating high efficiency cells without using exotic materials, resulting in lower overall costs. One of the most highly visible facilities using solar cells developed by UCEP is the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center, which was built for the 1996 Summer Olympics. Since that time, the Aquatic Center has produced 4 GWh cumulative AC energy since July 1996. The Center has been supportive of several educational competitions based on solar power, including the 2003 American Solar Challenge, where students built a solar-powered car, and the Solar Decathlon House Design Project.

Technology developed in UCEP spawned the development of Suniva in 2007. With its mission to "make solar sensible," Suniva manufactures high-value solar cells and modules using U.S.-based technology to address the world's energy needs. The company currently makes 18+ percent efficiency solar cells and has produced 20+ percent efficiency cells in the laboratory. The company goal is to have 20+ percent efficiency cells in high-volume production by 2011.

All cell research, design, and manufacturing is based in the U.S., according to Suniva Chairman and CEO John Baumstark. The company now operates three production lines at its Norcross headquarters and employs 150 workers, with plans to build and open a 200,000-square-foot manufacturing plant on 40 acres in Michigan that is expected to employ 500 people. Suniva has customers throughout the world--in the U.S., Europe, South Africa, India, China, and Taiwan--with plans to expand to other locations in Asia, Australia, and South America. The company recently received the Exporter of the Year award from the Export-Import Bank of the U.S. for exporting over 90 percent of its product in 2009.